Even as Massachussets sees an increase in COVID-19 cases, state officials continue to push school districts toward in-person learning models. Several districts across the state, including Cambridge and Framingham, have decided to move to remote learning, and most students in Boston are still learning online depsite the push to get more of the district's high-need students back to the classroom. GBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George about why she agrees with getting students back to in-person learning, and how the city is working to get there safely. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: Should more kids be back in school right now? Where is your thought on this? Are you getting more worried about these numbers?
Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George: Yeah, I'm certainly worried about the numbers, and we need to make sure that we have front and foremost of our mind this public health crisis and doing the work [to keep people] safe across the district. You mentioned that I'm a former teacher [and now] chair of the city council's education committee. I'm also the parent of four BPS kids and my high schoolers — I have four of them — they are sort of along the spectrum of finding success in this school year. I'm anxious about it. I want our kids back in school. I want our highest needs kids back in school and I want our babies, our little ones, back in school. I'm really just concerned about their health and also concerned about their well-being not being in school.
Mathieu: So why are they not?
Essaibi-George: Well, they're not because they're trying to keep them safe. But I think we're trying to balance the public health crisis and the real need for our students to be able to achieve academically. We need to make sure that our buildings are in better shape, and we're working and the district is working every single day, and the superintendent I know is almost singularly focused on reopening our schools because we know that that's where our children should be and that's where our kids belong. We're working towards that every single day.
Mathieu: So I guess the question is, then, what's the threshold? Obviously, this is something that you'd like to see happen. And if you're working towards it, is it about getting buildings to a certain state? Is it about getting transmission levels to a certain number, or is it more complicated?
Essaibi-George: It's really about all of those things. There are some really complex issues, as you mentioned, making these decisions — making sure that our transmission rate is low, making sure that our hospital numbers are low, our ICU numbers are low — and making sure that we have the pieces in place for students who need to be in school so that they can be in school, and that teachers have the equipment and the tools and the resources they need to provide that in person in the classroom academic experience.
Watch: "Too many of our kids need to be in the classroom, and they aren't right now."
Mathieu: The governor has pointed to data showing of low levels of spread in the school setting and using that as a baseline to encourage school districts to look at their own numbers and prepare to reopen and bring kids back into classrooms. I wonder, though, Councilor, if you're worried about winter. Obviously, we want to have the windows open and we want to have classrooms outdoors, if we can. In trying to deal with the throes of winter when cases are rising, doors and windows are closed [and] the heat's pumping. Is that a good time to go back?
Essaibi-George: There is lots of reasons to not go back and lots of reasons to go back. For me, it's about balancing those two things that are, unfortunately, often in direct conflict with one another. But I think about our kids who are most at need, our kids who are living in unstable environments, our students who are experiencing homelessness, our kids who are in desperate need of the resources that come with being in the classroom, kids who can't access the curriculum through a Chromebook because they are non-verbal, because they have a high level of disability, because they have a great need to be in person, in the classroom. The opportunity for the hybrid, opting into the classroom gives families some options, and working in partnership with our teachers, creating the safest environments that we can create for our kids to get them back into school as quickly as possible.
Mathieu: I'd like to ask you about a hearing that's happening tonight. As you are chairing the education committee, you're the person to talk to you about what is called an ethnic studies curriculum. All of the members of the council, I believe, to sign a letter supporting this idea. There's a lot that goes into this. What is it you're proposing?
Essaibi-George: Yeah, so the Boston Teachers Union, as well as the district, have been working on this ethnic studies curriculum to bring to all of our students across all of our grade levels. We had a conversation on Facebook Live last week with one of the teachers, Katie Lee, who has designed in this curriculum for the district and who has been working with teachers to train them on bringing ethnic studies into their classroom so that we are making sure that our kids are having a much fuller experience, especially when they think about history, especially when they think about their space in this city, in this country, in this world. And for me, the most important piece of bringing ethnic studies to our students, to our schools, is that our young people get to learn about and with each other about their own stories, about their existence [and] how they came to be. As the daughter of immigrants, this is really exciting because I haven't in my own life spent enough time thinking about my own story, my own place in this city and in this world. So for me, I'm really excited about this hearing tonight because there is a lot of momentum to bring this to our schools and a meaningful way [and] to bring this to our kids in a meaningful way. And I think that having this hearing, especially today [and] especially during this pandemic, reminds us all that as we're dealing with the challenges of this pandemic, the work continues. There is so much that we need to be doing in our schools around curriculum design [and] around creating greater access to academic opportunities. This topic this evening, I think displays that for sure.