Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is kicking off her first year in the role in an unprecedented fashion as the coronavirus has forced students out of the classroom and onto virtual conference rooms. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Superintendent Cassellius about how she's helping kids and their families stay informed and energized during the pandemic. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Every time I see your Twitter feed, I feel like you're running somewhere. What's your day like these days?
Brenda Cassellius: Well, I'm Zooming a lot, that's for sure. That gets me going at quite the pace. [Whether] it's the push up challenge, asking kids to make their bed and pay attention to their mental health or working with our teachers and our academic team to make sure that kids have what they need, I've just been so blessed to have such an incredible team here and so many wonderful volunteers who have come together to ensure that children are fed, that they have computers and that we're getting them what they need.
Mathieu: I've seen you even delivering some Chromebooks recently. A lot of classrooms are being taught through Zoom conferencing, as you mentioned. We're even doing shows on Zoom now here on WGBH. How's it working for school, though?
Cassellius: I think it's working okay. Nothing's ever going to replace the classroom with the teacher, and I know our students are missing their teachers and our teachers are missing their students as well. But they're getting by and every day doing more and more. I've seen just such excellent examples. Yesterday, Milo was making a zoo, I saw a little drama class that was put together [and] concerts on Zoom together. Kids have been used to using their Google classrooms already and their digital backpacks, so that's familiar. But some of the fun, creative innovation is really great to see.
Mathieu: Yeah, we've all learned about what Zoom bombing is recently, the hacking that I guess has been popping up. It's been an issue, I guess some schools in New York have stopped using Zoom. Is that a concern of yours?
Cassellius: Well, we have asked our teachers to use their Boston Public Schools Zoom accounts, and that will prevent some of it because they have a feature called a waiting room where teachers can enter their children into the classroom. So that will prevent some of that. We have had a couple incidents that caused us some pause, and so we've tamped down on that a little bit stronger on our security measures.
Mathieu: One of your elementary schools, Superintendent Cassellius, here in Boston has recently converted his cafeteria into an emergency screening clinic. Is that underway now? Is that in operation, and are there more of them in the works?
Cassellius: Yes. So we were converting the Quincy Elementary School to help the Tufts Medical Center to be able to diagnose medical health professionals and protect our larger community. That's just an important part of the whole community coming together and all hands on deck.
Mathieu: I understand. Does that also indicate that it's less likely schools might reopen this year?
Cassellius: We're watching it really closely with the mayor and the Boston Health Commission, as well as the CDC and the state to see what they do in terms of any delayed closure. So at this point it's still May 4th, but we're all watching it very closely and I'm in close contact with the mayor and health officials.
Mathieu: I'm sure there were a lot of competing thoughts and a lot of uncertainty as we consider the arrival of June. At a certain point, we're going to have to move on to next year, right?
Cassellius: Well, yes. And then, of course, we're already starting to plan for summer school, which we do normally and have this wonderful national model here with Boston After School And Beyond partners. So we're just hoping that we'll be able to get students out doing those wonderful activities as well as beefing up the academic program for some of our students who maybe weren't credit ready — some of our graduates — to ensure that they're able to continue on and earn that diploma.
Mathieu: Yeah, absolutely. Are there any particular criteria you're looking for in making this decision or are you waiting for the mayor's office to weigh in on that?
Cassellius: Well, it's the mayor's decision, but of course the governor also has closed the schools until May 4th. So it's a partnership. It's truly just looking at when it's safe for children to go back and when it's safe for parents and everyone else in the community to be outside. So obviously safety is the number one concern right here, and so that's our biggest decision that we're weighing right now.
Mathieu: It's a rainy day out, superintendent. You've been giving parenting advice on Twitter, I have noticed, telling stories of things you've done with your own family. Days like these, what's your message to parents to try to keep kids not only learning, but just interested in life?
Cassellius: Oh, hold tight and find your joy. I think that's the biggest thing. Parents aren't used to having their children home all day long when they're in the intermediate ages and teenagers, of course. So I would say engage them with games and get outside and go for family walk around the block. Obviously, we have to practice our social distancing when doing that and making sure that our faces are covered to protect others. But also set a routine. I think [that's] really good. And I've really been trying to stress to parents to keep the news off. The adult dialog on TV is not positive, and we want to keep our children in a positive frame. And then find ways for your children to connect with their peers, teachers and their community. That will be really, really important when we do return to school — that their peer relationships are intact and everybody's just really excited to reunite.
Mathieu: Thanks for spending more time with us here in the Void. This is just an uncertain period. And I realize some questions cannot be answered, but we'd like to stay in close contact with you as we begin to answer some of these questions about the months ahead for our students.
Cassellius: Well, I'd be glad to come back any time, be on the show and share what we're doing, and give out any advice that I possibly can. We also have a parent helpline that we're launching, so if people do need help they can call 3-1-1. They can also call our help line that we'll be publishing and sending out by a text to all of our families.