School nurses, parents, children, and community members gathered about 50 strong outside the State House at sundown Wednesday with a bullhorn and a list of demands for better COVID-19 precautions and services at Boston Public Schools and districts across the state.
They called on state and local officials to ensure that every school has prompt and reliable contact tracing, safe and effective ventilation systems, and high vaccination rates, as they spoke at the rally organized by the Boston Teachers Union, the Black Boston COVID 19 Coalition, BPS Families 4 COVID Safety, the Boston Education Justice Alliance, and other groups.
Jakira Rogers, who leads the Racial Equity and Access Program at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, said protecting students in schools “is both an economic and a racial equity issue.”
“BPS serves a large number of students of color, English learners, students with disabilities, and others who have faced historical racism and disinvestment in Boston Public Schools,” Rogers said. “Students and their families are struggling, particularly students with disabilities, and students from populations that have historically been marginalized, such as Black and Latinx students.”
She said lax COVID-19 procedures would worsen educational inequities because students from vulnerable populations are more likely to experience individual quarantines or school closures caused by outbreaks.
Boston Public Schools reported 345 new COVID-19 cases in the week running Dec. 2 to Dec. 8, more than double the new cases the district has announced in any other week this school year. Outbreaks have been reported this fall at the Manning Elementary School and the Curley K-8 School, both in Jamaica Plain, leading the Curley to temporarily move to online learning last month.
Rally participants chanted, “What do we want? COVID safety! When do we want it? Now!” and sang “This Little Light of Mine,” with lyrics changed for the pandemic. They held signs with messages such as “Fully fund public schools and health,” “Shine a light on school outbreaks,” and “Do your job! Charlie COVID Baker.”
Dr. Philip Lederer, an infectious disease physician at the Upham’s Corner Health Center in Dorchester, told the crowd he hoped the rally would be “a turning point for freedom and healing for the children of the Boston Public Schools and beyond.”
“We live in a time of great darkness, of unchecked COVID transmission, of withering injustice and weak political leaders,” Lederer said. “Our children are in danger from COVID and many other threats. Saving our public schools and protecting our children’s health must be our number one priority.”
Camellia Browne and Kellie Binczyk, both Boston Public Schools nurses, said they are concerned about safety in their school of almost 500 students, where contact tracing for those infected is lax.
“It’s been contracted out, and it’s not getting done,” Binczyk said. “These people are getting paid to do it, and they’re not doing it. And the safety of the school is falling on the school nurses.”
Browne and Binczyk said nurses are spending their time tracing contacts of infected students instead of tending to their regular duties, and important work is delayed.
“We aren’t here … to do COVID tracing, but unfortunately that’s what we’ve been doing,” Browne said.
Meanwhile, data and referrals from vision and hearing screenings conducted earlier in the year are reaching parents late because nurses don’t have time for it, and nurses are still reviewing emergency forms in December that they should have completed more than a month ago, Binczyk said.
“We’re so far behind because every day we’re dealing with COVID issues,” she said.