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Advocates call on Boston Public Schools to expand in-person learning for high-needs students

Rally organizers say remote learning is inadequate for many children

Lily Mota Sadberry (left) gets an assist from her mom Aliyya (center) as she holds up a sign that reads, "Special Ed Is A Right!" during a rally held to demand in-person services for students with high needs.
Lily Mota Sadberry (left) gets an assist from her mom Aliyya (center) as she holds up a sign that reads, "Special Ed Is A Right!" during a rally held to demand in-person services for students with high needs.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A group of more than 80 parents and advocates gathered in Nubian Square in Boston Sunday afternoon, calling for Boston Public School administrators to allow more high-needs students to return to in-person learning, according to an organizer.

The socially-distanced rally, which began around 2 p.m. across from the Boston Police Department B-2 District station, followed an announcement by Superintendent Brenda Cassellius last week that more than 1,700 students would be allowed back into 28 school buildings starting Monday. Those students include English language learners and those with significant disabilities.

But rally organizer Edith Bazile complained that group excludes many students who are struggling with remote learning and need the additional attention, care, and services they would ordinarily receive at school.


“These are real loses that children are suffering in terms of their development, and it’s a state of crisis for parents of children who are having constant meltdowns because BPS can’t get their act together,” said Edith Bazile, a special-education advocate and former Boston Public Schools administrator.

The Boston rally highlights the tension as school administrators try to balance intense demand for in-person classes with the desire to keep teachers and the community safe as coronavirus cases surge across the region.

The Dec. 7 announcement by Boston Public Schools to reopen 28 schools represented an abrupt shift for the district. Prior to Monday’s reopening, fewer than 200 of 51,000 enrolled students in the state’s largest district will have resumed in-person classes at four schools since officials closed classrooms on Oct. 21.

“In every decision we make, we are prioritizing education and safety for our highest-needs students, those who face significant risks to their well being when they are not in school, while respecting family choice,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in a statement about the reopening. “Every day matters for their progress and they deserve our very best effort.”


Superintendent Cassellius did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the rally’s push to expand the re-openings.

Bazile, who said she has participated in countless meetings with Superintendent Cassellius since the start of the pandemic, fears the district has done little to make its planning process transparent to educators and parents who have struggled emotionally and financially to meet children’s needs. Some parents have been unable to return to work while they care for their children, she said.

“Instead of looking for students with high needs, they looked at students with highest needs,” Bazile said. “To cherry-pick the students with high needs puts incredible stress and anxiety on parents.”

As of October 2019, more than 11,400 students with disabilities were enrolled in special education programs at Boston Public Schools, according to the school district. This means only a fraction of students who require services will get them come Monday’s reopening, Bazile noted.

Bazile’s own granddaughter, who has autism, was one of many students who require special services that was excluded from the reopening plan. In the months since she last attended in-person classes, her granddaughter has struggled with behavior that causes injury to herself, such as scratching, banging her head, and pulling out her eyelashes.

Bazile briefly addressed the crowd during Sunday’s rally, as did three parents of children with disabilities, Bazile said. A few children and parents demonstrated their support from the safety of their cars, while others held signs that said “I Need School” and “Special Ed is a Right!”


Henry VanDyke colors in a sign during the rally.
Henry VanDyke colors in a sign during the rally. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Abigail Feldman can be reached at abigail.feldman@globe.com. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.