The MBTA threw incoming Boston Public Schools superintendent Mary Skipper a curveball even before her tenure begins, with the announcement Wednesday that the entire Orange Line will be closed from Aug. 20 to Sept. 19, overlapping with the first day of school.
The closure is the latest in a series of challenges the district faces before classes begin Sept. 1, from a staffing shortage, to the threat of a coronavirus variant uptick, to the fast-approaching deadlines for its improvement plan with the state.
Skipper, winding down her tenure running Somerville’s schools, looked the part of Boston’s superintendent on Wednesday. She laid out the first sketches of the district’s response to the T closure and her priorities for the fall after touring summer school programs with Mayor Michelle Wu.
“Our plan, always, has been to ensure that there’s reliable transportation for our students,” Skipper said. “This is certainly an evolving situation, and we’ll be in continued dialogue with the MBTA.”
The district’s central transportation department will discuss with the T how best to coordinate the shuttle buses to ease the impact on the district’s school buses, she said.
Under the district’s agreement with the state, buses must achieve an on-time arrival rate of 95 percent or better each month, and 99 percent of buses must arrive within 15 minutes of the start of school. The district must begin reporting that data this month.
“With the development in transportation, we’ll be in dialogue with the state,” Skipper told reporters after the event.
She also emphasized the impact the closure could have on staff, many of whom rely on the T to commute to work.
“We have to look at it not only from the student and the family but also the staff [perspective] so that our classrooms are staffed properly,” she said.
Hundreds of positions, from science teachers to school lunch monitors, remain unfilled. Skipper said the district will continue to recruit more teachers and to promote from within, like “paraprofessionals who want to become teachers, teachers who want to get an ESL license or special education [license].”
“This is going to be our focus throughout the rest of the summer,” she said.
There were questions at the time of Skipper’s appointment about whether she would be able to give BPS the leadership it needs while she continues to run Somerville’s schools, But she said Wednesday she’s managing the task with “very full days and very full nights. Lots of homework on my part.”
Interim Superintendent Drew Echelson is leading the schools until Skipper takes over in late September, but Skipper said Wednesday that she is gradually shifting to focus more and more of her time on Boston.
She also got a headstart on another key task she’ll have as superintendent: touting the district’s successes. That’s what she was doing Wednesday at the Mildred Avenue School in Mattapan.
She and Wu met with a group of students ranging from first grade to high school who are participating in a summer program that pairs a lacrosse camp run by Harlem Lacrosse in the mornings with instructional time in the afternoon.The city has increased summer programming overall by 20 percent this summer and attendance has averaged about 87 percent, a record, Skipper said.
The programs, which aim to prevent learning loss during summer break, are run by a constellation of city departments, but the schools play a major role in providing staff and locations and are a major beneficiary.
“We know that the students that participated in these five weeks, when they come back in math and in literacy and in social and emotional they will be ahead,” Skipper said. “They will be able to start the school year without any loss of learning.”
In total, about 17,000 youths are participating in more than 200 programs, said Wu, who made the expansion of the city’s summer offerings a key part of her agenda.
“We know how much summer’s always mattered, but especially how much they matter right now,” she said.
Alexander Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AlMThompson