The first day of school in Boston always brings with it suspense, particularly over whether buses will pick up students on time — or at all. But the first bell this year comes with more questions for families than usual, as Boston officials race to implement mandates from the state while welcoming new leaders in critical positions.
And the usual uncertainty has been heightened by the shutdown of the Orange Line, which thousands of students use to get to and from school. Boston has hired more bus drivers than ever before, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year when more than 40 percent of buses were late to school the first day.
But there are additional questions this year: What will incoming Superintendent Mary Skipper, whose official arrival in the district is still weeks away, be like as schools chief? What changes has the state-mandated improvement plan, with its latest round of deadlines coinciding with the first day of school, brought about on the ground? What will COVID-19, now on its fourth school year, mean for students?
The answers, so far, from school officials, offer glimmers of hope. Interim Superintendent Drew Echelson and his team met the first round of state deadlines in August and recently highlighted steps to improve facilities that included installation of 1,000 new air conditioners in classrooms and 229 new stations for filling water bottles with filtered drinking water.
And, as part of the state-mandated plan, district leaders wrote new plans to improve instruction of English learners and the monitoring of their progress, and to expand native language instruction of multilingual learners. There is also a new policy and procedure manual for special education.
Some of the upcoming deadlines require concrete steps, such as implementation of a districtwide special education inclusion policy beginning in November.
Now, all of that work will be tested on Thursday. And some parents and community members worry over whether the district is ready.
Dozens of families are raising concerns about staffing shortages, reliable school bus service, and coronavirus protocols. At recent school events, hundreds of community members and families gathered online seeking answers about updated school COVID-19 policies and whether their children will be left on the curb by a bus that does not come. There were more prosaic questions as well, such as what color uniform children are supposed to wear.
Speaking at the most recent School Committee meeting, Sharon Hinton, a parent of a former Boston Public Schools student and an educator and founder of Black Teachers Matter, cited concerns ranging from the large number of teacher vacancies — more than 200 as of last week — to whether BPS is still at risk of being taken over by the state.
In an interview following the meeting, Hinton questioned why the School Committee selected a superintendent who could not start right away, or why the previous superintendent left.
“It’s nothing against [Skipper] specifically — I’ve heard great things about her — but it’s the process,” Hinton said.
Other parents are concerned about the fewer coronavirus restrictions this year. Suleika Soto, a cofounder of BPS Families for COVID Safety, was part of a group asking district leaders to begin the year with a mask mandate for at least 10 days. Soto worried that while Echelson said the district may impose mask mandates on individual schools or classes in case of surges, there was no metric in place to determine when those would kick in.
“How are they going to collect data?” Soto asked. “There is not a lot of testing going on. We don’t have as much to look at as we had the year before.”
Nikki Rivera, a parent of two BPS students, is also concerned about the new COVID policies. Rivera, who has chronic pulmonary disease, said she worries students who continue to mask indoors may struggle with few adult role models, such as teachers, making the same choice.
Rivera was among the many parents wary of BPS promises on transportation. Echelson and other administrators assured parents that allowances will be made for the Orange Line shutdown and related transportation delays, with no penalties for students who are tardy as a result, and a late breakfast option for affected students
Rivera said the lack of penalties for students arriving late is critical. But she has heard from teacher friends who are concerned they won’t get the same flexibility if they are late because of travel delays or because of issues with getting their own kids to school.
Parent advocate Vernee Wilkinson pressed administrators for a plan to provide makeup work to students who miss out because of transportation issues.
“It would be helpful to have some standard practices across the district,” said Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board for SchoolFacts Boston, a nonprofit that connects Boston families with information on education.
The BPS community meeting last week about the start of school drew more than 400 parents. But they didn’t get to hear from Skipper, who was unable to attend because of illness. Moreover, for Spanish-speaking parents, there were repeated interpretation glitches at the start of the session.
School safety also remains a concern, following incidents last year that included bullets being found at Boston Latin Academy.
“I’m very skeptical about sending my son to school there with no metal detectors,” one mother said at the event.
Echelson stressed the district’s focus on one priority above all others — “accelerating academic progress.” And, newly hired Academic Superintendent Linda Chen expressed appreciation for families sending children back to school this week.
“We know you have options, and we’re grateful you’ve chosen us,” she said.