With about a month until classes begin and amid a pandemic churning up endless questions, Boston parents got their first detailed peek at what the school week might look like this fall. Officials with Boston Public Schools (BPS) publicly released a first draft of its state-required reopening plan Tuesday night.
"The upcoming school year will look and feel different than any we have previously experienced," said BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius in a memo included in the plan.
The draft was developed, she said, around a core set of values: equity, health and safety, relationships and communication. Officials said they released it early to allow for feedback.
“Please give us your better ideas so we can incorporate those in and make this plan better so that it’s the best thing for this community when we get to the first day of school,” said Tammy Pust, a BPS senior advisor, at an online press conference to discuss the plan.
According to the plan, BPS will offer both hybrid and remote learning options to students next year. Families will be contacted this month to select the model in which their children will participate and whether they will need to use district buses to get their kids to class.
The hybrid model outlined in the district's plan will be available to all students in all grades and will be divided into three groups:
- Students in "Group A" would come to school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays; they'll learn remotely the rest of the week.
- "Group B" students would attend in-person classes on Thursdays and Fridays, going remote Monday through Wednesday.
- Students with special needs and English learners would make up "Group C." They'll be allowed to attend in-person classes with both Groups A and B.
- School buildings would be closed to students on Wednesdays so classrooms and other parts of the building can be thoroughly sanitized.
The district indicated that Sept. 10 will be the official first day of school. All students will begin remote classes that day, according to the draft plan. In-person instruction, however, would be phased in by grade level. Grades 1-8 will make up the first students allowed to attend in-person instruction; next are grades 9-12. Kindergarteners (K0/K1/K2) will make up the final wave of students to see the inside of a classroom. Specific start dates, officials said, were yet to be determined.
“Science drives that decision,” said Pust. “We will not bring anyone back until the Boston Public Health Commission says we can do it safely.”
Access to school buildings will also be very limited "as a means of keeping students and staff safe and healthy." Parents and caregivers will not be allowed to enter a BPS school building outside of picking up and dropping off students. Even then, that access will be limited to administrative spaces.
COVID-19 testing will not be required for students and staff to return to class, the draft plan outlined. Neither will regular temperature checks. However, However, the district said it plans to issue a health screening questionnaire for all students and staff to determine if individuals are well enough to attend in-person classes. BPS will also set up classrooms so that students sit six feet apart. The district also identified isolation rooms in each building to care for students suspected of having coronavirus symptoms. And, according to the plan, all school nurses would be provided with appropriate PPE.
District leaders mentioned several times throughout the plan that all of these plans are subject to change and could revert back to an all-remote learning model. The school system will make its final decisions based on transmission and infection rates. That threshold will be determined by the Boston Public Health Commission.
The district noted in its plan that it sought feedback since June from families, as well as teachers and staff, as it developed its initial proposal. The district said more than 17,000 families responded to its surveys on what went well or didn't around remote learning in the spring. In its plan, the district said about 40% of respondents "indicated a direct preference for a hybrid learning model."
"The results were more specific when broken down by race; between 51% and 74% of responders supported a reopening plan that brings students back into school buildings in some way," the draft plan stated.
The draft plan also addressed professional development for teachers and school staff. Beginning mid-August, teachers would be required to attend training sessions on how to support students dealing with trauma related to the pandemic. Other professional development efforts will focus on how to create a trauma-sensitive classroom environment, as well as how to create an optimal learning environment at home.
"It's good to see a detailed plan finally," said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union. "We definitely see some aspects of it that reflect what we've been seeing in our experiences." She said she appreciates the inclusion of specific professional development opportunities prior to the start of classes.
But Tang added the union still holds some major concerns. She'd like to see more details around health protocols, as well as safety assurances around facilities upgrades like ventilation systems.
Union officials also took issue with plans for simultaneous teaching called for in the hybrid models, in which daily lessons would be taught to students both in-person and logging on remotely.
"We continue to advocate for a phased-in approach," Tang said. "Starting thoughtfully and slowly, and slowly expanding. We maintain that that is the best way forward."
The Boston Teachers Union said it plans to make public its own detailed "aspirational proposal" in the coming days.
That reaction was echoed by dozens of parents and teachers who spoke during the public comment period of Wednesday night’s school committee meeting.
Parent and BPS teacher Antonietta Brownell argued that remote learning can work if done well. She added that going back to class in-person would put her and members of her family that have compromised immune systems in danger.
“Yes, there might be some lost learning. That’s not going to kill them but COVID can,” she said.
Others like Samantha Laney, a fifth-grade teacher at the Holmes Innovation School, said she’s worried about her classroom’s ventilation and student compliance with mask wearing policies.
“It is not yet safe to return to the school building,” she said. “What is being asked of teachers is unfair and frankly physically impossible. Making it unsafe for our kids.”
District officials acknowledged bringing back in-person learning this fall will be a challenge, especially when it comes to managing new instruction mandates, like simultaneous teaching. They added that the reopening plan is not intended to be one-size-fits-all document. Individual schools will have some flexibility to adapt it to their community’s needs.
"We continue to believe, however, that the excellent educators at BPS will successfully meet the challenge with appropriate professional development and classroom supports," BPS officials said in the district plan.
Superintendent Cassellius added that the district facilities team is actively working to make upgrades to school ventilation systems and replace windows that don’t open.
BPS leaders also said staff who are not comfortable returning to in-person learning have some options they can lean on, including leave policies like those under the Family Medical Leave Act. Cassellius said, right now, she’s cautiously optimistic about available staffing levels for the fall.
“I want to assure the community that the mayor, chief [of Health and Human Services for the city, Marty] Martinez, myself, our teachers, our school leaders, our entire organization are putting safety as our top priority,” she said at the press conference Wednesday.
District leaders said they plan to leverage community and stakeholder feedback as they finalize the plan before September.
This article was originally published on August 05, 2020.
This segment aired on August 6, 2020.