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Cambridge School Officials Reverse Course, Plan For Wider Reopening By February

Even with COVID-19 cases high, Cambridge will plan to bring more students back into schools — and to avoid another pullback to remote teaching — starting in February.

The city’s school committee voted unanimously to approve changes in policy after 10 o’clock Tuesday night — but not before families and teachers gave voice to a storm of conflicting anxieties that’s still raging ten months into the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the new framework, the city will seek to expand in-person learning for students in grades 2 through 5, in part by loosening distancing requirements, and to separate its school reopening plans from their prior, binding relationship with local viral data.

The specifics of the plan are not yet settled, but the district's overall goal is that schools will remain open in some capacity regardless of variations in pandemic conditions.

CPS Superintendent Kenneth Salim said he proposed  the change as his staff learned more about the virus’s dynamics and the troubling effects of remote learning on students.

Since October, Cambridge’s classrooms have been at least partly open to younger students — a step that the neighboring districts of Boston and Somerville chose not to take.

In the fall, Salim and his staff tied wider reopening decisions to three ‘key metrics’: the city’s daily rate of new cases of COVID-19, the overall positivity rate, and the level of viral RNA found in its wastewater — but the district never fully cleared those thresholds.

Salim said he came to see those metrics as a “blunt instrument.” Going forward, he said, the district will use viral data as “informative, not determinative.”

As they revised their plans, Salim and his staff turned to “Schools and the Path to Zero,” a report published last month by a group of researchers, including several at Harvard.

The report found that schools can safely reopen “even at the very high levels of spread we are now seeing, provided that they strictly implement strategies of infection control” — including universal masking, regular ventilation and hand hygiene.

"A 6 year old is not equipped to interact with his teachers and peers as two-inch squares on a computer.”

Cambridge parent Sandra Santos

In his presentation, Salim underlined the report’s finding that there are public-health risks when schools are closed — something many parents emphasized over the course of the evening.

Sandra Santos teared up as she described her 6-year-old son’s struggles with remote schooling. “Sometimes he cries in frustration — and rightfully so,” Santos said. “Because a 6 year old is not equipped to interact with his teachers and peers as two-inch squares on a computer.”

Parents shared students’ feelings of loneliness or anger after nearly two full semesters spent away from classrooms, peers and teachers. Others threatened to seek out private schools — or other districts committed to in-person learning — if the measure failed.

Many teachers responded with worries of their own. They argued that the district’s hybrid proposal — wherein some students in a classroom learn even as others join the class over video — has been shown to be ineffective.

And others called attention to safety concerns made vivid by the December 28 death of district custodian Jimmy Ravanis, who died of COVID-19 at age 57. (Ravanis had worked for the district for 35 years. It is unclear whether he contracted the virus while in a school building.)

Lily Rayman-Read, who teaches history at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, read from a letter signed by over 130 colleagues there. The letter called the district’s six documented cases of in-school transmission “alarming” by comparison to other districts. So far, Cambridge has recorded 50 total cases of COVID-19 in its schools.

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Rayman-Read rejected the idea that teachers and parents are in conflict; she said she teaches her classes remotely while trying to keep her son, in the first grade, “somewhat O.K. on Zoom.” But she and others said that Ravanis’s death — and the detection of a new and more virulent strain of the virus in the state — threw the health risks of reopening into relief.

“Nobody is trying to erase or minimize the mental-health struggles of many students,” Rayman-Read said. “But what I also know is that the trauma that students will endure, should we see significant loss of life or illness, is more profound."

Committee vice-chair Manikka Bowman cited the strains on students as part of her reason for supporting the proposal.

Bowman called upon Salim and Cambridge Education Association president Dan Monahan to initiate more constructive conversations with one another, and an “exhausted [and] divided” community, on controversial questions like this one.

She added, “We’ve been at this way too long to still be where we are.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized the views expressed by one parent/educator during Tuesday’s meeting. The reference has been removed. We regret the error.

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Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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