Boston Public Schools are back in session Sept. 21. Classes will start online when the bell rings on Monday, but the district spent the summer making updates to buildings and developing safety protocols for when students return to the building in a hyrid model in October. GBH Morning Edition Host Joe Mathieu spoke with BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius about what parents, students and teachers can expect to see in the new school year, and some of the challenges the district faces. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Do you have your first day of school outfit picked out?
Superintendent Brenda Cassellius: You know, I was walking to the office this morning — I live in Roxbury — and as I was walking, there was a chill in the air and it felt like school. And then I thought again for a brief second, oh my goodness, it's going to be just a little bit different with everybody on remote.
Mathieu: Well, boy, that's for sure. I don't care how old I get, I always get jitters when I feel that crisp air move in because it's time to go to school. Now, a lot has happened since you were last with us a few weeks ago. I was hoping to run down a checklist for parents, for students, for everybody, just to see where we are on a few items. And I'll start with a very basic one: What will school look like on Monday?
Cassellius: Monday is going to be all remote for our students, so we'll ask them to get on their computers that we gave them last spring or throughout the summer, or if they have picked those up in the last couple of weeks here. Then they'll enter in, they'll get with their teachers and get online, and then start their days off. It'll feel a little bit different, but it will feel a little bit like it did this spring for most of our students.
Mathieu: Yeah, it's not the first time, of course, we'll be going to school on a screen here. Are you taking precautions or making plans to make sure that Zoom is working or any of these applications that we keep hearing? People are getting Zoom bombed, they're having trouble logging in — a lot of districts have had some growing pains.
Cassellius: Yeah, with any technology, you're always going to have some growing pains. One of the things we are doing is just monitoring and doing a tech check up with our families, making sure that they are able to get on, that they understand how to keep their internet stable, and if they have a problem, who to call. So we've been doing some of that work with our teachers. We'll continue to do that all through the next couple of weeks that we work out the kinks and get everybody a computer.
Mathieu: I'd like to ask you about those computers. The Chromebooks that you mentioned went out in the spring. It's one of the stories today as there are reports — at least one report from Lawyers for Civil Rights — that you're having trouble getting them to all the students who requested them.
Cassellius: Yeah, the report that happened in the spring, I just want to be clear, is that anyone who requested one, we were able to give them. Boston Public Schools was not a one-to-one district, meaning not every student had a computer, and it was not part of our instructional design. We were moving that way, though, with the mayor's commitment of 40,000 computers. Fortunately, when we had to close our doors this past spring, the mayor put together and provided for 20,000 computers for us to get out to our students, and then we rallied and got some of the older ones that were in our buildings as well and got those out to students as best we could. But we also know that there are a number of students who actually did have computers at home or they were sharing because we were in supplemental mode at that time. We didn't think we were going to be going all year. Remember all the stuff we didn't know about COVID-19. We know a lot more now; we've learned a lot of lessons, and we're anxious for those computers to come in. We have a shipment of about 20,000 more so that we can exchange ones that maybe have broken over the summer or provide those to our new students who are coming to us this fall.
Mathieu: Well, that's important. So those who have asked for a computer who have not received one yet, you're telling students and parents that they're on the way?
Cassellius: That's right. They are on the way, and we will have activities for students to do all this week if they do not have one. But it is important for them to let let us know if they need one. I know some students are doubling up and sharing, but we want every student to have their own computer.
Mathieu: I'll keep going down the list here. How about bus routes? Have bus routes been finalized for those who will take a bus?
Cassellius: We have our bus routing almost finished. Some of it is being done for some of our students that we put in a prioritized group. So we are finishing that bus, but every student has an A schedule and a B schedule. We just recently this week gave parents a survey so that they could change. We're really trying to value and work with parents around their work schedules because as you know, in hybrid model, there are two days that you are in person and three days that you'll be in remote school. And so we wanted to be sure that, as much as we could possibly accommodate, we were accommodating. Those change requests came in this week, so we'll be finalizing those bus schedules and getting the schedules out to parents before they begin school.
Mathieu: Gotcha. When do you expect to be in the hybrid model?
Cassellius: October 1, we are expecting, given we continue to go down with the virus. Of course, we will not open our doors if it is not safe to do so for both our students and our staff. We continue to watch this, so I'm asking the public to continue the public health guidance of staying six feet apart, wearing that mask, not gathering in large crowds and most importantly, not going out if you're not feeling well. Those are the things that are really going to help us open our doors up no matter what we do to create our facilities and get all of the learning and computers handed out. It's really going to be the adults in the community adhering to these public guidelines that is going to help us open up the doors because that's our number one indicator, and safety of their top priority. So October 1 is the first day that we expect to have some of our students with disabilities and some of the other students that we've prioritized back to school.
Mathieu: Superintendent Casellius, I wanted to ask you about school buildings. [There are] a lot of questions about that in terms of ventilation and air flow, whether you have been experimenting with enhanced filters or what you can tell teachers before they enter buildings.
Cassellius: I'm so proud of our custodial staff and our facilities staff. They have just really been working with what everybody knows is very old buildings. About 65 percent of our buildings were built prior to World War II. Sometimes we had windows that weren't functioning. Only 35 of our school buildings have HVAC systems. But this has been a yeoman's task of rebooting where our cafeterias are [and] getting our windows replaced. We are going to be replacing 7,000 windows in the Boston Public Schools, making sure that we go above and beyond even to make sure that there's good airflow in the rooms, so we've ordered 6,000 fans that just came this past week. And we are going to be putting those fans in because you can blow the air out of the room, which then sucks the air out and keeps the flow going, which we're told is really good for the air quality.
We will also be doing independent inspections on the air quality within our schools. We've upgraded our bathrooms. As you know, that has also plagued Boston Public Schools and so our bathrooms have been upgraded. We've replaced faucets and making sure our toilets flush, and making sure that we have three months of cleaning supplies in the closets ready to go. And when those are getting a little lower, we will always make sure that there's three months of supplies available. So I am very, very proud of our custodial and facility teams. And this whole week, our teachers have been in the schools doing walkthroughs and we did a media walkthrough, and we just continue to show the public that we are doing everything possible to mitigate the health and safety of our building.
Mathieu: I can't even believe we're having this conversation, just to listen to you answer that question. Lastly, Superintendent, I just wonder if you have a sense of how many families are opting to go fully remote all year versus evolving into the hybrid plan?
Cassellius: Well, we had about 50/50 of our families choosing fully remote. We were watching this number when we first started doing the surveys, and it just never changed. So we do have approximately half of our families who are choosing to go remote all year. But what I think is going to happen is as we get students back in, because we are doing this responsible phase-in and the mayor has been committed to saying we are going to only open schools if they're safe. Parents are going to come in, they're going to see clean buildings, they're going to see that we have the supplies, they're going to see that the faucets are working [and] that the teachers have the protocols down for safety. So we believe strongly that as we continue to build that public confidence, parents will know and feel more comfortable sending their children to school. So we expect at the end of the marking period, as long as those community numbers are low enough with the concentration of the virus within our community, I think that we will continue to to be able to see more parents opting back into in school.
And can I just say one more thing?
Cassellius: It's just so important for everybody to fill out the census. September 30 is the last day to do that, and I just want to make sure everybody fills out their census, because that's the funding that's going to help us keep all of this going.