In an abrupt shift, Boston will reopen 28 schools next week, allowing 1,700 more high-needs students to return to classrooms, officials confirmed Monday.
“Children only get one childhood and no do-overs,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told school district staff in a letter obtained by the Globe. “That is why we believe we must act now and get our students back in school.”
Fewer than 200 of 51,000 enrolled students in the state’s largest district currently attend in-person classes at four schools. The students who have been invited to return to buildings Dec. 14 are those with significant and complex disabilities, and students learning English with limited or interrupted formal education, said Xavier Andrews, a spokesman for the district.
The Boston Public Health Commission has approved the plan and agreed with school officials that the harm of keeping classrooms closed to these students was far greater than the risk of COVID-19 transmission at school, Cassellius told several parent groups in a meeting Monday.
For the vulnerable students who are being invited back, Cassellius said, the “cumulative days, weeks, and months without in-person instruction, or access to remote learning, is significantly risking their success in school and ultimately, their life outcomes.”
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the returning students will include homeless students or those in custody of child-protective services. Those students were among the 2,600 who received in-person learning before schools closed in October amid rising COVID infection rates in the city.
Some schools have reached out to families of students who will be invited to return to classrooms. The district plans to notify all families on Tuesday, Andrews said, when translated versions of a letter from the school district will be available for families who speak languages other than English.
The news comes as pressure has grown for Boston to craft a clear reopening plan.
On Nov. 30, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley sent a letter to Boston’s school committee chair — as well as officials in Worcester and Springfield — asking for detailed information about the timeline for returning students with significant disabilities and preschool-age students with disabilities, as well as data on their daily participation in remote learning. He threatened to audit the districts if he was unsatisfied with their responses.
“For these particularly vulnerable groups of students, it is vital to have a plan for providing in-person instruction as soon as possible,” Riley wrote.
Last week, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he didn’t expect schools to reopen until after the Christmas break. The following day, about 100 children and parents protested outside Boston City Hall calling for schools to reopen.
The city also faced possible legal action from a group of attorneys who sent a letter Nov. 18 to the district and city leaders urging that there be opportunities for in-person learning for their clients, who are largely low-income students of color who have disabilities. The lawyers said the students had suffered severe learning loss and deteriorating mental health.
Most Boston students have learned remotely since last March, when all 120 schools closed as the pandemic hit. Over the summer, the district crafted a phased-in hybrid model that envisioned a mix of remote and in-person learning for all students by late November. But just weeks after the first wave of high-needs students entered school buildings, the city closed schools after Boston’s rate of positive COVID tests exceeded 4 percent, the threshold agreed upon with the teachers union to trigger school closures.
As of Dec. 3, the city’s data showed a 5.1 percent positivity rate. But in many neighborhoods where students live, including East Boston, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, the rate exceeded 11 percent.
Many epidemiologists say schools can be operated safely with sufficient precautions, even amid rising COVID rates, and should be prioritized to stay open as long as possible because of the physical and mental health risks associated with their closures. But even if schools haven’t turned out to be community super-spreaders, teachers are highly concerned about the risks to themselves and their families.
In her letter Monday, Cassellius acknowledged that there are many more students who need access to in-person learning, and the district is crafting plans for them to return in 2021. The district is also working on increased safety measures for schools and expanded access to COVID testing.
Cassellius also acknowledged teachers’ health concerns and “real fear” about returning to schools. The Boston Teachers Union has said most schools lack adequate ventilation to prevent transmission of COVID, an airborne virus.
“I know this seems counterintuitive to the surge that is happening across the country and our rising numbers in Boston,” Cassellius said, adding that the district has “gone above all state and federal guidance” to enhance safety. Those measures include: new free-standing air purifiers for every student-occupied space; upgraded air filters; testing of ventilation in all spaces; ensuring staff has access to free weekly COVID tests at or near school; medical-grade protective equipment; and strict adherence to social distancing guidelines.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said the union has been advocating for the return of high-needs students since the spring — albeit under a well-designed plan that ensures strong safety measures and solid instruction — but has concerns about the reopening plan for next week.
“Transparency is the key to the success of any reopening plan, along with strong, collaborative planning and timely communication with all impacted stakeholders,” Tang said in a statement. “The rushed nature of both the announcement and short turnaround continue to give us concern, but we are working diligently to address those concerns and have taken the initiative to plan for a safe and instructionally sound reopening.”
The union is planning to hold a forum for teachers Tuesday night.
Several groups that pushed for in-person learning praised the development.
“This is great news. . . . To start this now, rather than to wait after a break is extremely important,” said Elizabeth McIntyre, senior attorney for Greater Boston Legal Services, which sent the demand letter along with the Ed Law Project on behalf of students with disabilities.
Marcie Carmody, a member of the new group Voices for BPS Families, which organized the recent protest at City Hall, said her son was thrilled to learn he would return to school Monday for the first time since October. For her son, who is on the autism spectrum and attends sixth grade at the Eliot School in the North End, school provides crucial social opportunities that Zoom can’t replicate. At home, she said, he has grown more introverted, started fidgeting more, and regressed in his abilities to connect and communicate with people.
“It’s better to have kids in school, and slowly getting the kids back is great . . . but the fight keeps going,” Carmody said.
Edith Bazile, a special-education advocate and former Boston Public Schools administrator, criticized the district’s secrecy in crafting the plan and the exclusion of parents in the process. Surveys suggest white parents have far more confidence sending their children back to Boston schools than parents of color, she noted.
“You see inequity that existed pre-COVID being fueled by the lack of transparency, communication, and engagement of parents in Black and Brown communities,” Bazile said, adding the district was being unfair to families who had no idea if their students would have a chance to return to school. “They’re cherry-picking schools and cherry-picking students. . . . It’s just maddening because it makes parents think that it’s like a lottery system.”
Cassellius said Monday that the schools that will be open are: Blackstone Innovation School; Boston Community Leadership Academy; Boston Green Academy; Boston International Newcomers Academy; Brighton High School; Charlestown High School; Community Academy of Science and Health; Condon K-8; Curley K-8 School; East Boston High School; Eliot K-8 Innovation School; English High School; Excel High School; Frederick Pilot Middle School; Haley Pilot School; Harvard/Kent Elementary; Henderson K-12; Hennigan K-8 School; Horace Mann School for the Deaf Hard of Hearing; Jackson/Mann K-8 School; Kilmer K-8; King K-8 School; Lee K-8 School; Madison Park Technical Vocational High; Mario Umana Academy; Mattahunt Elementary School; McKinley K-12; Mildred Avenue K-8 School; Ohrenberger School; TechBoston Academy 6-12; Tynan Elementary; and William E Carter School.