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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Boston Public Schools orders tents for schools after teachers, parents complain about lack of outdoor meals

Kids line up for their next activity after lunch at the Vine Street After School Summer Program on July 22.
Kids line up for their next activity after lunch at the Vine Street After School Summer Program on July 22.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

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Boston Public Schools said Wednesday it ordered tents for each school to hold outdoor meals as a COVID-19 safety measure, an abrupt shift after telling schools for months to procure their own tents if they wanted them.

The change came after some teachers and parents took to social media in recent days to express outrage at the district’s plan for students to largely eat indoors in classrooms and cafeterias, after the district rented nearly 200 tents last spring for outdoor meals.

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Earlier Wednesday, the district defended to the Globe its initial decision to not provide tents to schools, saying tents were “incredibly costly” — the spring rentals cost $1.6 million for just over two months — and useless during cold weather. Later, the district told the Globe it had ordered five pop-up tents for each campus to “serve as an additional option for schools to use during their lunch periods.”

A district spokeswoman later said the order was placed Monday and deliveries could begin as early as next week.

Earlier this week, some teachers and parents alleged students at some campuses will be safer than others because of schools’ varying circumstances during meals, one of the few times students will be allowed to remove their masks.

For many, anxiety is running high ahead of Thursday’s first day of school, as Boston returns all students for full-time in-person learning for the first time during the pandemic, making distancing less possible than it was during the spring, at a time when the virus is more contagious with the Delta variant. Outdoor transmission is exceedingly rare.

“It’s stressful,” said Bridget Colvin, a Roxbury mother of three BPS students. “This virus is considerably more transmissible than the variant from the spring and we have fewer precautions in place. It doesn’t make sense.”

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Last year, the schools where Colvin’s children attend — Mendell Elementary School, Timilty Middle School, and Boston Latin Academy — all had tents for lunch, she said Tuesday. This year, the plan was for them to eat in classrooms and cafeterias.

“They’ll be indoors and maskless for a good 20 minutes,” Colvin said. “That’s a really long time for this virus to just spread across the entire room.”

The Boston Teachers Union said it was “unhappy” about this year’s lack of tents and was negotiating with the district to try to return tents to schools.

In its first statement to the Globe, BPS said it heard people’s complaints and was working with schools that wanted tents. But securing tents last spring was difficult, costly, and plagued by shipping and installation delays, said spokeswoman Sharra Gaston.

This year, Gaston said, only four of 123 schools requested tents. She said the district told school leaders they need to procure and permit tents themselves, as the district doesn’t have its own contract or vendor this year. And schools need to remove tents by November, she said.

Indoor meals will be as safe as possible, she said, following guidance from public health officials. Windows and doors should be at least slightly opened to improve ventilation, the district said. Elementary students will have assigned seats. State officials in August encouraged, but didn’t require, schools to socially distance students during indoor meals. The district said it’s working with schools to ensure distancing during meals as much as possible.

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Without the district taking responsibility to provide outdoor dining spaces this year, there will be vast inequities in safety, said Roselynn Rodríguez Manzanet, a middle-school science teacher and mother of three young, unvaccinated students at the Rafael Hernández K-8 School in Roxbury. She said some schools, like hers, lack the outdoor space or money for tents.

Last year, because fewer students attended classes in person, Hernández students ate in the school’s small atrium or on its outdoor patches, but that’s not feasible this year with everyone back, said Rodríguez Manzanet.

This year, the plan was for students to eat in the cafeteria with “a lot of people,” she said. But the city and district could do much better, she said. At her school, she said, officials could offer stipends to staffers or parents to help supervise students during lunch so they can spread out more and erect tents on a vacant city-owned lot across the street.

“I don’t understand why we’re not taking advantage of that,” she said. “I just wish the district had people on this, looking at each school and figuring out what green spaces can the schools use to provide these outdoor seating options.”

Regarding Boston’s cold winters, she said, enhanced safety for a few months is better than none at all.

“Every month we’re able to offer more protection is a month where more community members can get vaccinated,” said Rodríguez Manzanet.

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Not everyone feels tents are necessary. Shamieh Wall, whose 3-year-old daughter will be attending a Dorchester BPS preschool, approves of her child eating lunch in her classroom.

“It’s a gamble,” she said. “If it turns out to be a total nightmare, I might have to revisit it, but I’m fine with their plans for right now.”


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