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To reopen high schools faster, vaccinate teens, says BPS superintendent

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona met with Boston school officials and staff, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, to discuss reopening schools.
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona met with Boston school officials and staff, and Acting Mayor Kim Janey, to discuss reopening schools.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Teenagers 16 and older should be prioritized for a coronavirus vaccine and schools should hold vaccination clinics, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius told US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Tuesday.

“High school students are struggling,” Cassellius said. “They’re isolated.” The vaccine “would bring some normalcy to their lives.”

Cassellius made her appeal during a visit with Cardona at the Joseph P. Tynan Elementary School in South Boston. It was Cardona’s first stop on a multistate listening tour to understand the challenges of reopening schools as President Biden’s administration pushes for the majority of elementary and middle schools to fully reopen in-person during his first 100 days in office.

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“There is no substitute for in-person learning,” Cardona said. “And you’ve shown you can do it.”

Cardona did not publicly respond to the superintendent’s suggestion for a teen vaccination initiative. The Biden administration is urging all educators to be vaccinated, but has not made any special plans to vaccinate students.

To locals, Boston may seem like a curious choice for Cardona’s first stop on a tour to talk about reopening, given that the city is delaying a state mandate to bring students back to a more normal school schedule and setting until later this month.

But as big cities go, Boston’s experience getting students back in schools, while frustrating to some parents, has remained relatively low-drama. In San Francisco, the city had to sue the school board to reopen schools, and in Chicago, teachers nearly went on strike over reopening plans.

In Boston, a small number of high-need students have been able to study inside classrooms since November. The district has added new groups of students over the months, including those with disabilities, students learning English, and homeless students. Then, in March, the district started bringing back additional students for two days a week, starting with younger ones.

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The state directive to bring elementary school students back to in-person school five days a week by April 5 had Boston and other districts scrambling. Boston received special permission to delay that move until April 26, saying it needed more time to prepare buildings and communicate with families. Middle-school students in Boston will also begin attending full-time in-person classes then.

One of the biggest challenges has been winning over families who don’t trust the school system, said Leslie Gant, principal of Tynan Elementary School. “We had to convince families it was safe,” she said. Of the school’s 239 families, 182 have opted to return for full-time, in-person learning next month, she said.

Nearly 60 percent of all Boston Public Schools families say they want their children to go back to school in person, said Xavier Andrews, director of communications for the school system. That’s an increase over the 51 percent who requested hybrid learning in the fall, when that was the only in-person option.

Back then, the preference for in-person learning was much higher among white families, 73 percent of whom chose in-person learning, compared to 46 percent of Black and 45 percent of Latino families. Boston hasn’t released a breakdown by race and ethnicity for recent choices.

The state has not set a date for high school students to resume full-time school in physical classrooms. In Boston, high school students started attending brick-and-mortar schools on a part-time basis this week.

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If more high school students were vaccinated, schools could more safely reintegrate them into physical classrooms. Young people are fueling a recent surge of coronavirus infections in Boston, with people under 29 involved in more than half of the new cases over the last two weeks, according to Acting Mayor Kim Janey.

3Superintendent Brenda Cassellius spoke during the meeting with US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.
3Superintendent Brenda Cassellius spoke during the meeting with US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Only the Pfizer vaccine to prevent COVID-19 has been approved for people as young as 16. Versions from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have been deemed safe for people 18 and older. In Massachusetts, residents 16 and older will be eligible for the vaccines starting April 19.

Students might benefit from their own on-campus vaccination clinics, since they often don’t have the same access to transportation as adults or flexible schedules.

Even if they aren’t attending full-time, in-person school, Cassellius said, teens need the vaccine to resume their lives.

“It’s so important for high school students to build community with their peers . . . and they may need the vaccine for summer jobs,” she said. “But right now they’re afraid of going out and then bringing something home to their grandparents.”





Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.