The Boston school system plans to delay the start of the school year for students until Sept. 21, as officials remain undecided over whether they will reopen classrooms for in-person instruction or continue all learning remotely this fall.
Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union is planning a car caravan and City Hall rally for Thursday. And a group of Black clergy wrote a letter to city officials urging them to begin the school year remotely to ensure the safety of students, school staff, and their families, noting the “COVID-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on communities of color.”
“We do not make this request lightly, recognizing both the nuance and complexities of our current discourse, however, we do believe that it is the right thing to do for all interested parties,” the clergy wrote.
Students were initially going to return to classes on Sept. 10. But the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is allowing districts to postpone their opening days and reduce the number of school days from 180 to 170 to provide teachers with more training.
Teachers would still report to work on their original start date of Sept. 8 and receive more extensive training.
Boston school officials announced the new opening day at a City Council hearing Wednesday night, held virtually, that drew scores of teachers, students, and parents. Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius are expected to announce by Friday whether they will start the school year with in-person learning.
If school officials bring students back inside school buildings, it would be on a part-time basis. The most recent proposal calls for most students to report to classrooms two days a week and spend the rest of the days learning remotely. Parents would have the option to keep their children at home for full-time remote learning.
Walsh and Cassellius said that a number of factors will drive their ultimate decision, including COVID-19 infection rates, which vary considerably across neighborhoods and complicates the decision. New state guidelines issued this week that tie various reopening plans to COVID infection rates indicate that Boston should proceed with either full-time remote instruction or a mix of remote and in-person learning.
Support for the different school reopening plans vary.
More than a third of Black, Latino, and Asian parents who took a school system survey this summer indicated they preferred full-time remote learning, while less than a quarter of parents from those demographic groups supported a full-time return to the classrooms, which school officials have already decided against doing.
By contrast, more than a third of white parents favored a full return to school, while only 16 percent of them wanted only remote learning.
Parents of children with disabilities are also split on the reopening plans, said Roxi Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Advisory Council. She said some parents have said their children had a good experience with remote learning in the spring, but others said their children were being denied services.
“There are children and families in complete crisis,” she said. “I hear a lot of people say: I can go to a casino, the gym, get my hair and nails done, but my kid can’t go to school? Hmmm.”
If the school year does open only remotely, Harvey said school officials must devise a plan so that students with disabilities who require one-one-one support, such as occupational therapy, can still receive those services. She said that could be done in a variety of ways, such as opening some schools specifically for those services or having specialists work at another community setting or in a student’s home.
The Rev. Miniard Culpepper, chairperson of the Covid-19 Clergy Coalition and a signer the letter calling for a remote start, said he thinks having students return to school buildings part-time would be a mistake, especially since so many school buildings have old and inadequate ventilation system.
“Because it’s affecting our families disproportionately, we think this is not the right thing to do,” he said in an interview. “Do you really want to send these children into school who may be asymptomatic or have the virus transmitted to them while they are there? Many of the caretakers of our children are grandparents.”
School officials, he said, should seize this opportunity to make Boston the capital of remote learning in the country, noting there are many esteemed universities in the area that could help them make that a reality.
But he also said school officials have to come up with a way to safely provide one-on-one support for students with disabilities who need it. He said clergy decided to send the letter because “the clergy community has a moral obligation to speak up in the best interest of protecting our youth, families and teachers.”