Thousands of Boston Public Schools students in the lower grades returned to the classroom part-time this week — a massive operational effort that will challenge students, teachers, and parents alike. But the vast majority of BPS students are still completely remote. The negative impact is clear: More students aren’t showing up. They’ve virtually disappeared.
It’s important that the district bring them back, for it’s clear there are no substitutes for in-person learning. Are there reopening templates to follow? Some schools already have done the trial-by-error work of staying open, including charter and Catholic schools in the area. The story of one, Boston Preparatory Charter Public School in Hyde Park, which offers grades 6 through 12, suggests that safe in-person learning is possible, but it takes engagement with parents and a level of resources and flexibility that typically aren’t available to mainstream public schools.
Boston Prep, where the student body is 67 percent Black and 27 percent Latino, officially reopened in September for 26 of its highest-needs students. Since then, the school has slowly added students: About half of sixth-graders came back four days per week for in-person learning in mid-November, then some high schoolers returned in December, and so on.
Out of a total enrollment of 672 students, Boston Prep expects to have 225 of them and 79 teachers (representing 75 percent of the total faculty) back for in-person learning this week. There will be another wave of students returning next week, which will bring the share of students learning in person to roughly 45 percent of total enrollment.
Here’s how they did it: Boston Prep tests all students, teachers, and staff every Monday in the gym. It’s not pool testing — it’s free individual PCR COVID-19 tests, with the results arriving Tuesdays around 3 a.m. Learning in person, for most, occurs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, with the exception of sixth-graders, who also go in on Fridays.
Boston Prep literally took a sledgehammer to its facilities to open up spaces for better learning. The school knocked down walls to combine and enlarge classrooms and converted the school’s two cafeterias into oversized classrooms. All windows are open, even though the heat blasts, and the school has bought HEPA filters. It also divided the building into five zones from which students don’t stray. There are three separate entrances, designated by grades, at which the school does daily temperature checks as students and staff enter every morning. And sixth-graders and some special education students are transported by a private bus company hired by the school to keep students off the T.
All those changes were fully informed by parents and teachers, school leaders said. “Our families have been split: 50 percent want in-person, 50 percent want remote,” said Sharon Liszanckie, the school’s executive director. Sometimes it took offering parents a higher level of safety than what the science is dictating. “Folks are saying that you don’t need to do temperature checks, but our families say they wanted to do it,” said Liszanckie. So the school complied. “Yes, even if [the parents] are not the experts.”
An upper threshold of physical distancing was key as well, Liszanckie said. “Our families and our teachers said, ‘We want 6 feet,’ so we did that.” Some teachers and staff had their own children to worry about. What if their own schools weren’t reopening? In response, Boston Prep offers a $1,000 monthly subsidy for all parents and guardians on staff to cover child-care needs.
It is a hybrid with a high amount of communication. Natalie Branch, who has an eighth-grader at Boston Prep, said the school has been “very open and transparent throughout the entire process.”
Of course, it has also taken money — about $1.5 million of testing, remodeling, transportation, and other COVID-related expenses. About $500,000 has come from the federal government, with the rest from fund-raising and budget reallocation. “If I have to put my money on things now, looking back, it would be: ventilation, ventilation, ventilation,” said Liszanckie.
But it’s also taken a level of flexibility that most traditional public schools don’t have. “What Boston Prep has done so well is, they solve the problems that have a solution quickly,” said Tara Shuman, a high school English teacher at Boston Prep. “From what I’ve seen anecdotally, some schools are just struggling at the problem level while we don’t get ourselves stuck there.”
There’s no arguing with the results: As of last week, Boston Prep had done a total of 1,487 COVID-19 tests since they began testing on Nov. 2. “We’ve had nine asymptomatic positives total,” said Liszanckie. “And zero in-school transmission.” Keep in mind that Hyde Park has had one of the highest community positivity rates in the city.
Which takes us back to the more than 50,000 students in the city’s traditional public schools, where this level of independence isn’t feasible. In general, there’s been too much disagreement over how to reopen Boston Public Schools. What may be good for one school building may not work in another. And the politics influencing the debate cannot be ignored — many studies have shown that local political conditions have been a huge factor in reopening.
Mistakes are unavoidable, but if Boston Prep provides any guidance, it’s to establish a level of confidence and individual choice across the board — and listen and adapt when necessary.