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As COVID surge hammers staffing in schools, Wu pressures Baker on remote learning

Buses waited to load up with students.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

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As Boston Public Schools canceled classes ahead of extreme cold expected to grip the region Tuesday, Mayor Michelle Wu warned schools eventually may turn to remote learning — even without state approval — as a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant continues to cause staffing shortages.

“Whether or not we get credit from the state for a day of remote learning, if a school needs . . . to do that because of staffing issues, we are going to take that,” Wu said Monday.


Wu continued to publicly pressure the Baker administration on remote learning, saying Boston needs more flexibility as COVID-19 hammers staffing in schools and has led to increased absences among students.

The state has taken a hard line on remote learning, forbidding districts this school year to move instruction online — except for in limited circumstances with the state’s approval. And on Monday Governor Charlie Baker appeared not to be backing down.

“We’ve said all along that we think the best place for kids is in school,” Baker told reporters at the State House following his regular meeting with legislative leaders. “And that is because in many respects, every respected public health expert in America has said” the safest place for children is school.

A School Department spokeswoman said in a statement BPS was closing schools out of an abundance of caution, noting the bitter cold “will cause dangerous conditions for any citizen.” Other districts, including Springfield and Lowell, also canceled schools.

Wind chills are expected to plunge to around minus 8 degrees in the Boston area Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. In a tweet, the agency noted that “these cold wind chills could result in hypothermia if you are not careful so please be sure to limit outdoor exposure and bundle up if spending time outside.”


The cold comes just four days after Boston and other districts called off school on Friday as the region confronted its first major snowstorm, which dumped almost a foot in Boston.

The cancellations are the first for Boston this school year, pushing the last day of classes from June 22 to Friday June 24.

The extreme weather has given Boston and other districts a temporary reprieve as they struggle to keep school buildings in operation amid a surge in coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant, which has caused unusually high staff absences. On Monday, Boston schools saw 1,202 staff absences, including 640 teachers and 343 paraprofessionals, and a daily student attendance rate of only 73 percent, roughly 20 percentage points lower than normal.

Those rates appear to have worsened from last week, when the district also reported that 1,170 students and staff members had contracted the coronavirus over the past week. That was by far the highest weekly tally since the start of the school year.

School leaders have had to think creatively about how to address the staffing shortages. At Boston Latin School, for instance, some classes have been combined and held in the dining hall and auditorium, overseen by a team of substitute teachers and administrators, according to an e-mail sent to families. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius also has stepped in to teach.


Wu has repeatedly expressed concern about the school system’s ability to keep some buildings open as it grapples with high absenteeism and has repeatedly urged the state to allow districts to have the flexibility to offer classes remotely when too many teachers are out sick.

On Monday, Wu emphasized switching to remote learning would be a last resort and would likely be done only at individual schools with acute shortages rather than districtwide. She noted that schools already are preparing contingency plans to offer remote learning.

”For Boston to have maximum flexibility in administering what is safest for our students, that still provides a high quality learning experience, we would always appreciate that flexibility,” she said.

Boston’s decision to close schools for extreme cold is unusual, but not without precedence. The school system and several others around the region called off classes for severe cold one day in January 2015. The weather service at the time predicted a wind chill of 22 degrees below zero that morning.

Boston and 350 other districts also canceled school on another January day in 2004 because of freezing temperatures. The weather service warned the overnight low would be minus 8 degrees, and the wind chill in the morning could be as low as minus 40 degrees.

Most other times when it is extremely frigid, Boston issues advisories to families, encouraging students to dress warm. But in those instances, school officials have confronted criticism from many parents for keeping schools open and sometimes problems starting some school buses.


Several Boston parents expressed support for calling off school.

“Many BPS schools rely on open windows for ventilation, and the heating systems in our older buildings are far from reliable,” said Travis Marshall, who has two children at a Roslindale elementary school. “Given the serious staffing shortages, including bus drivers, it is best to keep students from freezing at bus stops and shivering in classrooms. Since the governor and commissioner Riley are dead set against allowing a temporary remote option in these extenuating circumstances, closure is the only option.”

Lisa Graf, the mother of a seventh grader, also expressed concerns about COVID-19 and inadequate facilities in voicing her support for closing the schools.

“It is smart thinking of the district because the days can be made up later, some school buildings have open windows due to poor ventilation, and there are many teachers and bus drivers out,” she said. “It is also a good short-term work-around for poor statewide policies around COVID.”

But Justin Pietrella, whose daughter attends kindergarten at a Charlestown elementary school, said he opposes closing school because he’s not convinced that the conditions are not safe enough for students to go to school. He questioned whether the decision was based on any cold-temperature threshold for calling a snow day.

“Those temperatures aren’t necessarily frequent, but they are certainly not uncommon,” he said. “If the school facilities are such that we’re unprepared for weather typical of the region we live in then surely there are some drastic changes needed.”


He also believes the district should be able to offer remote learning.

Councilor At Large Erin Murphy, who supported canceling classes on Tuesday, called on the city to invest more in school buildings, especially in upgrading antiquated ventilation. About two-thirds of the city’s schools were built before World War II.

“Being a Boston Public Schools teacher for 24 years, I understand and support the reasons behind Boston Public Schools being closed tomorrow, but I do believe that this raises bigger questions about the infrastructure of our Boston Public Schools, including better ways to mitigate heat and cold in our classrooms,” she said in a statement.

Matt Stout, Milton J. Valencia, Travis Anderson, and Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him @globevaznis.