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The Great Divide

Will hard-hit Mass. cities’ schools reopen after teachers are vaccinated? Not necessarily

Chelsea fifth-grader Ashly Mejia Gongora did warmup drills as she took gym class remotely from the Clark Avenue Middle School. Most Chelsea students are expected to wait until fall to return to in-person classes.
Chelsea fifth-grader Ashly Mejia Gongora did warmup drills as she took gym class remotely from the Clark Avenue Middle School. Most Chelsea students are expected to wait until fall to return to in-person classes.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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By just about any indicator, low-income students and children of color have been hit hardest educationally and economically by the pandemic. And now, tens of thousands of them are among the last to see their school districts reopen for in-person instruction in Massachusetts.

Boston’s schools have begun a phased reopening that should encompass all students by the end of March. But many other urban districts serving large low-income populations, including Everett, Chelsea, and Lawrence, could be months away from reopening, particularly for students who are not identified as “high needs.”

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Several are likely to fall short of President Biden’s goal of reopening most K-8 schools in his first 100 days, or by the end of April. (Federal officials even want schools in high-risk districts to reopen at least partially, according to new guidance released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) And even the teacher vaccinations expected by the early spring may not persuade wary educators and families to return to classrooms in some struggling cities.

“COVID has had such an impact on our community in Chelsea,” said Superintendent Almi Abeyta, who doesn’t plan for most students to return until the fall. “So there’s a bit more hesitancy to send students back to school, even though we know in-school transmission rates are very low.”

Over recent weeks, the Globe reached out to more than a dozen leaders in the state’s 26 “gateway cities”: former manufacturing towns such as Lawrence, Lynn, and Lowell known for their socioeconomic and racial diversity. While most of them say they want to offer each student at least two days a week in classrooms this spring, very few have committed to set dates or have adopted a timeline as ambitious as Boston’s.

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Lawrence and Lynn have a small number of high-needs students in classrooms but no plan for returning most students. Brockton says it will bring back high-needs students to schools on Feb. 23, but the anticipated March reentry of general education students may be postponed until teachers get vaccinated. Springfield hopes to return general education students on April 12 but that target — like most of the other cities’ — is still subject to virus metrics and teachers union negotiations.

Union opposition halted many districts’ plans for partially in-person reopenings last fall. But officials hope this spring will be different, with declining virus rates, warmer weather, growing evidence that in-person learning can be safe and, of course, vaccines.

Statewide, an estimated two-thirds of districts offer some in-person learning for general education students now, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“This isn’t September and October — we’ve learned a lot,” Scott said. “The more districts come back, it puts more pressure on those that are not.”

Teachers union officials say they’re protecting not just their own safety in the state’s hottest COVID spots, but also that of their students’ families. “We want nothing more than to be in front of our students, but only when it’s safe for us, for our students, and for all the families in our district,” said Kim Auger, president of the Everett Teachers Association, at a recent School Committee meeting.

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Some gateway cities have been offering fairly consistent in-person instruction to all students, including New Bedford, Fall River, and Salem.

But overall, Scott said, the gateway cities have lagged behind. All the numbers fall out of the urban districts’ favor: higher COVID rates, lower resources, and aging infrastructure.

“There are a lot of brown and Black children across the state that have not had any access to any in-person school since [last] March 12 and that’s something, as a state, that’s of tremendous urgency,” said Salem Superintendent Stephen Zrike. “It’s heartbreaking to think about the mental health challenges and academic loss.”

Like all Massachusetts districts, gateway cities must come to an agreement with their teachers unions before committing to reopening plans; in most of them, negotiations are ongoing as thousands of teachers await vaccines. Unions are pressing the state to help low-income districts reopen by speeding up their teachers’ vaccinations before the expected timeline.

Last month, state officials moved teachers behind people age 65 and over in the state’s current phase, slated to last February through March. So most educators will likely become eligible at some point next month.

Yet in some gateway cities, including Chelsea, the timeline for reopening has little to do with vaccinations. Few, if any, Massachusetts cities have been hit harder by the pandemic, as the densely packed streets, multigenerational households, and large numbers of essential workers fueled the virus’ deadly rise.

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Even after teachers are vaccinated, Abeyta wants to offer routine testing to ensure safety. But testing could cost the district $75,000 to $140,000 per week, the equivalent of several teachers’ salaries.

“It would probably take up all our stimulus funds to do testing all year long,” she said.

Some Chelsea Public School students learned online as they sat in the cafeteria at the Clark Avenue Middle School.
Some Chelsea Public School students learned online as they sat in the cafeteria at the Clark Avenue Middle School.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Unlike other superintendents, Abeyta hasn’t received much pressure from parents to reopen schools; last summer, half of families said they would not send their children back this school year. She hopes by late February, virus rates will fall enough to discuss plans for kindergartners and high-needs students to return. But everyone else will likely have to wait until the fall.

Family perspectives are mixed.

Fifth-grader Ashly Mejia Gongora wants a speedier return. She feels safe doing her Zoom classes at one of the city’s learning centers and has made far more academic progress there than at home. A principal who helps run the center provided Ashly extra support in reading, and she loves devouring the center’s many books.

Ashly’s mother, Evelin Gongora Velasquez, said in-person instruction is crucial for students experiencing troubles focusing at home or those whose parents can’t adequately help them because they don’t speak English.

Chelsea fifth-grader Ashly Mejia Gongora attended class via Zoom from the cafeteria at the Clark Avenue Middle School.
Chelsea fifth-grader Ashly Mejia Gongora attended class via Zoom from the cafeteria at the Clark Avenue Middle School. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But Katy Ochoa, 17, thinks the district should stay closed this school year, even though her senior year at Chelsea High School has lacked the friends and fun she anticipated. It’s worth keeping people safe from the virus’ ill-defined long-term effects, she said. She contracted COVID in September and still has not regained her sense of taste, including of her beloved Capri Sun juice.

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“I don’t feel comfortable returning to school if a majority of the city is not vaccinated,” Ochoa said.

In several other cities, including Chelsea’s neighbor, Everett, the reopening path is more straightforward: Once teachers can get fully vaccinated, children can return.

“This is not something we control, so that has been unnerving,” Superintendent Priya Tahiliani said.

Everett’s March reopening plan was pushed to late April after the state said teachers would be behind senior citizens in vaccination priority. Tahiliani suggested educators receive just the first of two doses of vaccines before reopening, but the union is demanding both doses, plus a two-week period afterward for immunity to kick in.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said teacher vaccinations are not a prerequisite for schools to reopen safely, and schools can mitigate transmission risks through masking, distancing, adequate air ventilation, and other measures.

But that’s little comfort to educators like Elena Hickey, who teaches second-graders with disabilities in Everett. She lives with her high-risk mother and won’t feel comfortable returning to a classroom until she is fully vaccinated. She understands the drawbacks of online learning for both her students and her daughters, who miss their friends and sports from Everett High, but she believes they’ll bounce back.

“Kids are incredibly resilient,” said Hickey.

In Everett, family surveys show slightly more than half of families want their children to return in person this spring.

“If we don’t move on hybrid learning as fast as we reasonably can, that means we are not responding to a very significant percentage of our families,” Tahiliani recently told the School Committee. “The clock is ticking.”

In several other gateway cities it remains unclear whether school returns will be synced to teacher vaccinations. Brockton had planned to return general education students in March but that might be delayed as the union pushes for a plan similar to Everett’s.

Superintendent Michael Thomas said he wants to accommodate his staffers, who have worked overtime many evenings to tutor students to make up lost ground.

Yet he feels an urgency to get kids back in classrooms. The pandemic has savagely increased inequities, he said. “There’s no way to sugarcoat it.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com.