Educators, advocates and parents pressed Boston Public Schools officials to rethink a proposed draft plan for reopening during a public comment period in Wednesday’s Boston School Committee meeting.
Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said the current proposed draft plan, which would alternate groups of students for in-person and remote learning in a hybrid or “hopscotch” model, would be dangerous for students and teachers.
“While there are aspects of the reopening plan released by BPS that we find encouraging and that we agree with, we don’t think the plan is tenable or realistic,” Tang said. “The main areas where we disagree are on the misguided simultaneous hybrid approach, and the feasibility of accomplishing the goals set forth within the timeline provided, especially if COVID-19 data keeps trending in the wrong direction.”
Tang and the BTU urged Boston Schools officials to begin school with a remote-only model and delay reopening in-person learning to a date later than the currently scheduled Sept. 10 beginning date, which Tang called “completely unrealistic.”
BPS officials held a press event earlier in the day to invite feedback and criticism from the education community, acknowledging that the draft plan contains flaws and likely needs to be tweaked before students are expected to return in some capacity.
“We understand that the hybrid that we've proposed in our plan is not perfect,” said Tammy Pust, the senior advisor to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, during the press call Wednesday morning. “There are a lot of things about it that are problematic.”
Nearly 100 teachers, parents, education advocates and other community members gave feedback during the public comment period Wednesday. The majority seemed to agree with Pust’s assessment that the current reopening draft contains problems.
Ashley Clerge, a teacher at the Hugh Roe O’Donnell Elementary School in East Boston, said she is “incredibly disappointed” by the current iteration of the plan.
“Our buildings do not have adequate ventilation, sanitation or safety measures in place," Clerge said. “With a pandemic where Black and brown people are being intentionally left to die, is the district ready to have blood on their hands? The choice to continue pushing the hybrid model unfairly pits the community and the staff against each other.”
Samantha Laney, a teacher at Millis Middle Schools, expressed fear about becoming an enforcer of mask-wearing while teaching.
“What is a teacher expected to do when a student refuses to wear a mask or straight-up tries to lick another student?” Laney said. “This sounds funny, but it will happen. I already have fifth-grade students who would rather get into physical altercations than complete their work. What happens when they find out all they have to do now is lick someone?”
Before the public comment period, Pust acknowledged that wearing a mask for an entire school day is not ideal for anyone, but “we don’t have a choice about that, so we have to keep them on.”
“It simply isn’t possible to retrofit 90-some buildings that have no air filtration systems or put in air conditioners in every single one of the buildings,” Pust said. She added that this has resulted in a focus on what can be done, which is to ensure that no students will gather for instruction in an area that doesn’t have outdoor air flow, like an open window or door.
“We are looking now at how many fans we have or don’t have,” Pust said, “and how we can supplement that.”
Blackstone Elementary School teacher Joel Richards said that he and most teachers he knows are desperate to return to their classrooms — but not if those classrooms aren’t safe. “I just want Boston to stop asking teachers to choose between people that they love. We love our families and we definitely love our students,” he said. “All I ask is that you please make decisions based on data and mercy and the best interest of the students that are constantly trampled upon, forgotten about, underfunded and overpoliced in our city.”
Boston City Councilors Julia Meija, Annissa Essaibi-George, Ricardo Arroyo and Michelle Wu all urged BPS to reject the current hybrid draft plan for reopening.
“There are many ideas out there, many ways that a hybrid model could work better than this current proposal,” Wu said. “I urge BPS to commit to an all-remote start to the school year and take the [hybrid] proposal off the table in order to prepare for a phased-in transition for at least some students.”
Arroyo expressed concern about how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected communities of color and low-income communities, and emphasized the need for safety in school buildings.
“This plan has nothing for contact tracing, this plan has nothing for mandatory testing, this plan doesn’t protect our children,” Arroyo said. “I feel wholeheartedly for families that want a plan that lets their children be in school, and I understand that this plan does not allow that to be a reality at this time.
The current draft plan requires students to wear masks throughout the day, aside from a small “mask break,” and maintain 6 feet of distance between desks. Teachers would be given professional development training for an “undetermined” number of days ahead of the school year, which would include health and safety training for in-person teaching, and technological training for remote lessons.
According to the current plan, students will be split up by grade to begin their part-time, in-person teaching in phases. Grades one through eight will begin in-person classes first, followed by grades nine through 12, and ending with kindergartners. All students will divide their time into two in-person days and two remote learning days. Every Wednesday, students will vacate the building for cleaning. Teachers are expected to come to the building and finish other work in person.
School Committee member Lorna Rivera, who supports a fully remote learning model in the fall, expressed fear about teachers being in the building during cleaning.
“I really am concerned,” Rivera said. “I don’t see how a building can be fully cleaned when there are individuals in the building.”
Parents will have the option to have their children learn exclusively from home. But there will definitely not be the option or requirement for all students to do in-person learning full-time, Cassellius said Wednesday. Students will be in schools part-time at maximum, she said.
Pust said that if public health metrics say that schools are not safe for students' return, learning will return to an all-remote plan. She did not give an exact metric that would prompt this reversal on Wednesday.
Districts are obligated to file three reopening plans to the Department of Early and Secondary Education by Monday: an all-remote option, an all in-person option, and a hybrid option. Cassellius said BPS will process feedback and draft “several” more versions of the reopening plan before Monday's deadline.
“Our singular focus really does need to be on ensuring that students, teachers and school leaders are ready for our new school year,” Cassellius said. “Over the next few weeks, we need everybody to focus on that planning.”