Boston Public Schools will not require masks districtwide when students return to campuses next week, acting Superintendent Drew Echelson told members of the Boston School Committee Wednesday.
The district plans to schedule COVID-19 and flu vaccination clinics at schools and send home COVID test kits regularly, but will only move to require masks in response to particular circumstances such as case clusters in specific schools or classes, Echelson said in an interview ahead of the meeting. Masks will be “highly encouraged” for both students and faculty and remain required in school health offices.
Close contacts will be required to mask after exposure, as will students returning from isolation within 10 days of their first positive test.
Many other districts around the state reopened Wednesday without mask requirements. A study comparing the experience of Massachusetts schools that maintained masking requirements early this year with those that dropped them has provided new evidence that masks are beneficial in protecting students and staff from COVID-19. Statewide COVID-19 test positivity has been stable at around 8 percent for the last six weeks, and vaccine boosters targeting the newest variants were approved Wednesday.
A number of public commenters called for a mask mandate to begin the school year.
The district will ask families to test students Sunday night or Monday morning before school each week to catch asymptomatic cases. With the state no longer supplying tests, Boston Public Schools spent $10 million on them, Echelson said. Students will be sent home with a pack of two rapid tests every two weeks.
Echelson’s presentations were technically not part of a School Committee meeting. For the second session in a row, the committee was only able to muster a meeting for a short period to vote on action items. When a member left at 5:14 p.m., the meeting adjourned, and the remaining three attending members remained on the Zoom call to hear presentations and public comments.
District leadership also gave a broader reopening update.
“By the first day of school, we will be ready with complete staff hires to ensure every student has a qualified educator in their classroom and transportation systems ready to get our students to school in a safe and timely manner,” said Linda Chen, the district’s senior deputy superintendent for academics.
Bus drivers and monitors, food service workers, and paraprofessionals represent the biggest staffing needs, Chen said, while the largest teacher shortages are in ESL and secondary school science, concentrated at a small number of schools. As of Wednesday, the district had 211 teacher vacancies, about 4 percent of the total budgeted positions.
The remaining staff vacancies may not reflect a labor shortage so much as a surplus of positions: the district added more than 600 positions using its federal relief funds. Even with the remaining driver openings, the district has significantly more drivers than it ever has before, Echelson said.
As of Aug. 24, 50,980 students were enrolled in the district, up slightly from the projected enrollment of 49,251 and the actual enrollment last year of 49,322. Enrollment will continue to fluctuate, and official numbers are reported to the state on Oct. 1.
Deputy Superintendent of Operation Sam DePina highlighted facilities work, including installing more than 900 air conditioners and 200 water bottle filling stations.
The district is holding virtual back-to-school community events with incoming superintendent Mary Skipper on Thursday at 6 p.m. and Sept. 10 at 10 a.m.
The committee also heard the latest news on the state-mandated district improvement plan. The district met its first set of deadlines on Aug. 15.
The plan’s next deadlines are set for Sept. 8, the first day of school. By that day, the district must hire a “coordinator of problem resolution” for student safety concerns and publish updated procedures for tracking students who withdraw from the district to ensure accurate graduation and dropout rate reporting.
The district is again on pace to meet its requirements, Echelson said.
“We’ve discussed them on multiple occasions with [state education] leaders and received feedback, and we will again post all of our deliverables on the [district] website for public review once we’ve submitted,” he said.
The start of school also means the district is beginning to face what Echelson called “the real test,” the deadlines that involve operations in the district rather than things like audits, plans, and staffing. For example, the district must begin reporting bus on-time arrival rates to the state, a consistent first day of school challenge.
In 2021, 57 percent of buses arrived before the morning bell on the first day of school — an improvement over recent years but far from the 95 percent rate required by the state plan.
The state threw the district an additional curveball for start-of-school planning when it announced a month-long shutdown of the Orange Line until Sept. 19 for track repairs — potentially affecting thousands of students’ transportation.
Echelson noted the previously-announced agreement with the bus drivers union to have transport vans on routes for students who go to school outside the city, freeing up drivers within city limits.
He directed students to the city’s Orange Line shutdown guide and highlighted measures including the provision of 5,000 CharlieCards to families and policies ensuring students who arrive late to school due to the closure are not penalized.
Adria Watson of the Globe staff contributed to this report.