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Boston schools plan to bring more students back in person in coming months

Teachers and students walked to the entrance of the Mattahunt Elementary school in Mattapan for the start of their day in the classroom in December.
Teachers and students walked to the entrance of the Mattahunt Elementary school in Mattapan for the start of their day in the classroom in December.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Boston public school officials on Monday announced a highly anticipated plan to resume in-person classes for any students who would like to attend, starting in February with the first of four phases that extend into April.

The new timeline, which has the support of the Boston Teachers Union and city health officials, means thousands of older students will have been out of the classroom for more than a year by the time they return. Only a tiny fraction of the city’s students — fewer than 2,000 with special needs — have been attending classes in person since November.

“I’m really excited to announce the reopening to parents,” Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Monday afternoon during a press briefing. “They’ve been wanting and asking for certainty around dates, and we’re providing that certainty.”

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School officials, however, said the timeline could be adjusted: A rapid decline in infections could speed up the reopening, but a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases in the city could prompt delays. The seven-day moving average of Boston residents testing positive for the coronavirus was nearly 9 percent on Jan. 3.

The Boston Public Schools system, which has been under growing pressure from the state and many parents to reopen classrooms, has been struggling since the summer to develop and execute a plan. Rising COVID-19 cases, the need for repairs to antiquated school buildings with old or no mechanical ventilation systems, and drawn-out negotiations with the BTU have frustrated the district’s efforts to get kids back into classrooms.

Initially, officials wanted to start the school year with most students attending in-person part time, but then they shifted gears, under pressure from the teachers’ union, instead pursuing a plan to phase students in over two months in the fall. That effort had barely gotten underway in October when a rise in COVID-19 cases caused officials to close the schools again.

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Throughout it all, tensions with the teachers union have been rising. The union unsuccessfully sued the district in October for keeping schools open after the city’s coronavirus positivity rate rose above 4 percent, which the union said violated its agreement with the district. Last month, the union approved a vote of no confidence in Cassellius — the first time the union has taken such a step in half a century.

The current plan calls for opening classrooms to all students who are given priority for in-person classes, including those with disabilities and language barriers, on Feb. 1.

All students in preschool through grade 3 would follow the week of March 1, students in grades 4-8 would begin the week of March 15, and students in grades 9-12 would report to classrooms the week of March 29, with the last cohort of high school students returning April 1.

Students will attend school in person two days a week and learn remotely three days a week. That will keep attendance levels low enough to maintain social distancing guidelines. Many students with high needs, including some of those who are already attending school in person, qualify under the city’s plan for four days of in-person instruction.

Parents could still opt to keep their children learning from home full time. The school system will soon send out letters to confirm whether families would like their children to return to in-person classes.

But some parents are worried the reopening of classrooms could get delayed again. The city is still grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, and it’s unclear if it has hit the postholiday peak.

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They also wonder how leadership changes at City Hall could affect the schedule. Mayor Martin J. Walsh also is expected to join the President-elect Joe Biden’s administration as labor secretary, and it remains to be seen whether his replacement — City Council President Kim Janey — will stick to the district’s new timeline.

As it is, the plan announced on Monday already sets a later timetable than the one school officials shared with the state last month, saying in a letter they would bring additional students back in January starting with preschool and kindergarten students.

“I’m not sure why we need to wait three weeks” to get more students back in classrooms, said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parents Advisory Council. “High in-person priority students cannot wait any longer.”

But Public Health Commissioner Marty Martinez said he believed the timeline would provide an adequate buffer to get past the postholiday surge. He added hospitalizations are currently much lower than they were in the spring — a hopeful sign, he said.

Still, some students and teachers maintain that recent changes in how the city reports its virus data make it harder families to assess the risk. Khymani James, a senior at Boston Latin Academy and the student representative on the Boston School Committee, said that problem should be addressed before students head back into school buildings.

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“I appreciate the district and BTU’s efforts,” James said. “I hope this plan truly reflects what the community wants and needs, especially for Black and brown students and families,” James said.

School officials struck an agreement with the BTU Sunday night in which the district promised to take a number of safety measures, including providing personal protective equipment, air purifiers in classrooms, air quality testing, and adequate staffing levels.

Cassellius and Jessica Tang, the union president, unveiled the agreement Monday afternoon during a Zoom briefing. Cassellius said the moment marked a new era of collaboration between them. Tang said the agreement contains important safety standards.

“Educators have long advocated for and emphasized the importance and value of returning to in-person learning, especially for our highest students, and that is, again, another shared goal,” Tang said.

Walsh expressed appreciation in a statement that the superintendent and Tang reached an agreement to reopen schools.

“Throughout the pandemic, we worked diligently to implement the appropriate planning and safety measures to allow more students to return for in-person learning because we understand the importance of providing a range of learning options for families,” Walsh said in a statement.


Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.