As Boston Public Schools reopens its doors Thursday, families will see multiple changes heading into this school year, from coronavirus precautions to transportation. Here’s what to expect:
BPS can return to classes mask-free. While district leaders are encouraging the use of masks in buildings, it is not mandatory. However, BPS leaders said they could mandate masks in classrooms or specific schools if there is evidence of a cluster or spread of COVID-19.
BPS in June lifted its universal masking mandate for the final days of the school year, one of the last school districts in the state to do so after a statewide masking mandate ended in February.
BPS will be sending dual COVID test kits home with students every other week and asking families to test their children at home Sunday nights or Monday mornings prior to school. The testing kits will cost the district about $10 million.
The district also will offer vaccination clinics for both the flu and COVID-19.
“Everything we can do to ensure that our students are vaccinated and boosted is going to be really critical,” said BPS Acting Superintendent Drew Echelson. “We are from an equity perspective looking at neighborhoods where we have lower levels of vaccination and ensuring that we’re prioritizing . . . those schools in those communities.”
Masks will still be required in school health offices, for close contacts after exposure, and for students returning from isolation within 10 days of their first positive test.
Boston and other Massachusetts students will continue to receive free school meals, regardless of income, under a one-year expansion of a free federal school lunch program.
The state Legislature included $110 million in funding for the program under its $52.7 billion budget that was approved in July.
The federally funded free meals program was born out of the pandemic, when campuses shuttered and students were sent home to learn remotely. Access to the free meals was expanded, but the national program expired at the end of the summer after Congress failed to authorize an extension for another school year. Advocates pushed for the state to take over and keep school meals free indefinitely.
BPS reopens in the middle of the 30-day shutdown for track repairs to the MBTA’s Orange Line, which already has tacked on confusion and hours to commutes. Officials warn the closure could worsen transportation woes.
Students who use the T line to get to school could face more daunting commutes as shuttle buses replace the line during the closure.
The closure presents another challenge in a district that already struggles to get students to and from school on time. Late yellow buses often plague BPS’s first day of school. Last year, more than 1,200 buses ran late, and more than 40 percent did not make it to school in time for the opening bell.
In recent years, BPS stopped providing bus services to most seventh- and eighth-graders, instead providing them with T passes. The overall number of students relying on the MBTA is over 23,000.
Among measures to manage the closure, the district is sending “ambassadors” to MBTA stations to help guide students and providing 5,000 CharlieCards to families. Students who arrive late to school due to the closure will not be penalized.
After a state review of BPS progress in May found persistent dysfunction, BPS currently is under a mandated improvement plan. The state and city negotiated the corrective plan that held off the threat of a total state takeover of BPS.
Last month, district leaders met the first state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education deadline that required assessing the conditions of school bathrooms and setting initial priorities for renovations; laying out plans to better serve multilingual learners and students with disabilities; and soliciting bids from experts who will review and recommend fixes to student safety, transportation, and special education.
The plan’s next deadlines are set for Thursday, the first day of school, when 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 at a School Committee meeting last Wednesday. Echelson also noted that the Council of Great City Schools review of the district’s special education is underway and will be presented to the School Committee in November.
BPS faces staffing challenges but continues to hire new employees daily. As of Aug. 31, the district had more than 700 job vacancies, from bus drivers and lunch monitors to teacher aides. That includes over 200 teaching positions, about 4 percent of the total budgeted. Last year, the district employed more than 8,400 people.
The district has worked toward creative solutions, Echelson said, including tapping retired educators to fill the posts.
Vacancies in part reflect new positions: the district added more than 600 positions using its federal relief funds. Even with the remaining bus driver openings, the district has significantly more drivers than it ever has before, Echelson said.
“Across BPS, we will be ready from a staffing perspective to open our doors and to safely and appropriately welcome all of our students on the first day of school,” Echelson said. “And we’re going to continue to get this number down between now and the start of school.”
As of Aug. 30, there were 50,987 students enrolled in BPS, an increase over last year.
But enrollment is likely to fluctuate considerably before the official count on Oct. 1: In 2021, the district reported 51,869 students were enrolled in August, while the official Oct. 1 count was below 50,000 for the first time in decades.
The district, the state’s largest, has experienced declining enrollment for years. BPS has shrunk by about 8,000 students, with more than half of the drop recorded in the past couple of years.