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‘A new first day’: Thousands of Boston students return to full-time, in-person learning for first time since March 2020

From left: second-grader Ku Swaray crossed the street with her twin sisters, Miatta and Emma, who are both in first grade as they return to F. Lyman Winship Elementary School.
From left: second-grader Ku Swaray crossed the street with her twin sisters, Miatta and Emma, who are both in first grade as they return to F. Lyman Winship Elementary School.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The Boston Public Schools took a major step toward a return to normalcy Monday, as scores of students in preschool through Grade 8 began their first full week of in-person learning since the pandemic forced widespread closures over a year ago.

“It’s been a year, but it feels like forever for many folks,” said Acting Mayor Kim Janey of Boston, who visited the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester as students returned to classrooms.

The students Janey met were among more than 23,000 children in grades K0 through 8 who had signed up to return to classrooms five days a week. All families were allowed to opt into a remote-only model, but students could no longer choose a “hybrid” approach — learning part time in-person and part time from home.

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Most elementary schools in Massachusetts were required to return to full-time instruction earlier this month, on April 5, but Boston received a state waiver to delay its full-time reopening until after April school vacation. Massachusetts middle schools are required to return full time by Wednesday.

Third-grader Kira Shea, 8, got a big hug from her mother, Rae, before making her way into F. Lyman Winship Elementary School on Monday.
Third-grader Kira Shea, 8, got a big hug from her mother, Rae, before making her way into F. Lyman Winship Elementary School on Monday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Monday was really “a new first day again,” said Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang. Students and educators, she said, had to adjust to new routines and expectations.

“This year just hasn’t been easy,” she said. “This is probably the third or fourth transition the educators have had to adapt to.”

Tang said the transition back to full-time, in-person learning seemed to be going smoothly on Monday — the result of “an incredible amount of planning.” But challenges remain: Educators, for instance, will still be expected to teach students in the classroom and those learning from home simultaneously.

The return to full-time, in-person learning also presented some difficulties for the school system’s bus fleet.

During the Monday morning pick-ups, 12 percent of buses ran late, compared to a 4 percent tardy rate last month when the district kicked off part-time, in-person learning.

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Buses performed much better than the typical opening day of full-time instruction, though. In the 2019 school year, for instance, 57 percent of buses ran late on the first day.

As of April 23, the families of 23,708 students opted for in-person learning, about 46 percent of the district. Another 19,888 students, about 39 percent, were expected to attend school in a remote-only model. Those numbers are subject to change, however, because families who did not choose a learning model were automatically placed into the one previously selected by the family, according to the district.

“The more that families see this is working and it is safe to have their children back in the classroom, I think they will make those choices [to send children back],” Janey said.

Black, Latinx, and Native American families have opted into full-time, in-person learning at about the same proportion as the overall district — 44 to 46 percent of each student population. Far fewer Asian American students are expected to return, however, with only 29 percent opting to go back to classrooms full time.

Lorena Lopera, executive director for nonprofit Latinos for Education and a Boston parent, said she’s noticed some demographic trends in families’ decisions, but she said the thinking behind those choices is different for each family.

“It’s hard to have a blanket reason for how folks are reacting” to the full-time return to instruction, she said. “I don’t think there is one solution for all families, even within similar racial and ethnic backgrounds. We’ve all kind of had different experiences amidst this pandemic.”

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Students who are in an in-person model, but need to temporarily switch to remote learning due to sickness or other COVID-related protocols, will be allowed to do so. Families should communicate with their child’s school to coordinate a temporary switch to remote learning, the district said.

Also on Monday, students in grades K0 through 12 at the district’s special education day schools — The Carter School, Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and the McKinley Schools — who chose full-time, in-person learning returned to five days a week in classrooms.

At the Frederick pilot middle school, where Janey visited Monday, almost half of the school’s 400 students showed up, many more than the number who participated in hybrid learning, said principal Pauline Lugira.

Some students, she said, told her they decided to jump into full-time, in-person instruction because they were having connectivity issues at home or just wanted to be back with their classmates and teachers.

“There’s a level of support and care that our teachers here at the Frederick provide for our students,” she said. “Our kids were craving that, in addition to just being back to some level of normalcy.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.