With coronavirus cases surging, Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said on Wednesday the district is taking every step possible to avoid moving learning online, while students announced they are planning a walkout.
“We’re working on exhaust fumes these days, but they must be the hydrogen kind I think because everyone’s got a lot of energy,” Cassellius told the School Committee during a meeting held remotely.
The superintendent’s team unveiled a plan it will follow on whether to close individual classrooms or schools, stressing communication with staff, families, and state education officials, who have insisted upon being involved in the decision-making.
Should schools or classrooms close, the district will distribute laptops and COVID-19 rapid tests and provide information on learning expectations and how to obtain school meals, mental health supports, and Wi-Fi access.
Closing schools for COVID-19 has been hotly debated. Governor Charlie Baker and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have forbidden districts from operating remotely, saying they won’t count that time toward the required 180 days of schooling. The education department has only approved a limited number of school closures this school year and says districts should instead shut down only specific classrooms as a last resort.
In recent days, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has clashed with Baker over the issue, repeatedly urging the state to give districts the freedom to shut down schools, while eventually saying Boston may take such action without state approval. On Friday, students are expected to join her advocacy with a walkout to draw attention to the need for remote learning and stronger COVID-19 safety measures.
“We are being placed in schools where safety protocols are not strictly applied,” said Nirsine Feham, a freshman at the O’Bryant School of Math and Science in Roxbury, in testimony at the meeting. “There is no sort of distancing given the fact that many schools either don’t have the space or overcrowded places such as the cafeteria and hallways have become a playground for COVID.”
William Hu, a Latin School senior, has circulated an online petition advocating for all districts statewide to go remote that has garnered more than 7,000 signatures.
A number of parents, however, are pushing to keep schools open.
“I’m sorry for those families and teaches who are struggling through this but I will say I think it’s important that we think long and hard before we blanket-close schools and move to remote learning,” said Tara Donohue, a parent at the Lyndon K-8 School in West Roxbury, her voice shaking. “Schools are not only a safe place but a healthy place. Keeping students in school should be our No. 1 priority. What benefit comes from a child sitting in a room alone?”
Previously, Boston and the state had a showdown over closing the Curley K-8 School in November to contain a COVID outbreak. The state would only approve remote learning for four days of the seven-day shutdown.
In a positive development, Cassellius announced that practices for high school athletic programs should resume next week, as she faced growing public pressure to reverse course. Several students and parents expressed appreciation in public comment.
The developments come as the latest surge in COVID-19 cases has taken a toll on staffing, with the district experiencing more than 1,000 daily absences. Student absenteeism has also been high.
According to the latest COVID-19 case count for the week ending Jan. 5, the district reported 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.
Concerns over the coronavirus prompted dozens of parents, students, teachers, and advocates to speak out during the Zoom meeting, which was the first for Stephen Alkins, Wu’s latest appointment to the seven-member board.
Alkins works at TERC, a STEM education nonprofit organization.
Many attendees expressed concerns about safety as they urged a switch to remote learning.
“We are living in a public health emergency and the wellbeing of us and our children are at stake,” said Dacia Morales, whose daughter attends the Eliot K-8 School in the North End. “I think schools should close until we get proper guidance to deal with the surge.”
Mary Dibinga, a Boston Latin Academy teacher, said she had students return to her classroom with active COVID cases when they were supposed to quarantine “because they’re afraid that they’re going to miss instruction” and were sitting alongside students with medical conditions. She also expressed concern about the lack of appropriate PPE and no-show buses that have forced students to squeeze onto crowded public transit.
“I am coming to you this evening exhausted and anxious and sad and angry as all of you must be because this has been a very long ride for all of us,” she said. “And I know that a lot of effort is being made ... I’m just very afraid that we’re making some efforts in the wrong direction and I’m asking that we step up and have the courage to take correct measures that we know are right.”