Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Friday afternoon that the city’s public schools will resume with fully remote learning next month, as part of a four-phase plan to gradually bring students back for part-time in-person classes later in the fall.
However, officials stressed that families still have the choice to keep their children learning remotely through the semester.
“If you’re a parent and you’re not comfortable with sending your child to school, you don’t have to send your child to school,” Walsh said. “If you’re a parent and you’re looking for some concrete understanding of when school will begin, that’s what this plan does.”
According to the plan, all Boston public school students will begin the year remotely when classes resume on Sept. 21.
Beginning no sooner than Oct. 1, students with higher learning needs will be able to return to school.
Based on grade level, the rest of the student population will then be allowed to return in phases to a hybrid learning program — in which students will be split into groups and attend in-person classes two days a week.
Kindergartners will be allowed back no sooner than Thursday, Oct. 15, and Monday, Oct. 19, depending on whether they’re assigned to Group B or Group A (Group A attends school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, Group B attends school in person on Thursdays and Fridays, and all students learn online on Wednesdays).
Grades 1 through 3 will be allowed to return no sooner than Thursday, Oct. 22, and Monday, Oct. 26.
And under the final phase of the plan, Grades 4 through 8 will return no sooner than Thursday, Nov. 5, and Monday, Nov. 9; high schoolers will be allowed back beginning Monday, Nov. 16, and Thursday, Nov.19, at the earliest.
“Some of our students are more vulnerable than others, and some of our students need in-person instruction more than others,” Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said during the press conference Friday. “I heard that loud and clear throughout all of my listening sessions. One thing that doesn’t differ is every parent’s worry and desire that their child gets everything that they need.”
The plan comes after months of increasing consternation over balancing the educational and development needs of students against the public health risks of resuming classes in the midst of a pandemic.
Walsh noted that the dates outlined in the plan are contingent on local COVID-19 rates and said city officials had set an average citywide 4 percent positive test rate as the maximum threshold under which schools would be allowed to bring back students.
“If we’re at 4 percent citywide, we will not bring our kids into school,” he said.
Walsh said that Boston’s current seven-day average positive test rate is 2.8 percent, based on data for the week ending last Saturday.
However, the city remains classified by state public health officials as a moderately high-risk community, based on the raw number of COVID-19 cases in Boston.
Walsh also acknowledged that, for some neighborhoods in Boston, the positive test rate is significantly higher than the citywide average. For instance, he said East Boston is dealing with an average positive test rate of nearly 8 percent. While most parts of Boston are currently below the 4 percent threshold, Walsh said city officials are continuing to discuss what to do if October comes and there are particular neighborhoods above that level.
“We don’t have a full answer for you right now,” the mayor said.
Marty Martinez, the city’s top health official, said they were “doubling down” efforts in East Boston to slow the spread, adding that “we have to be intentional with the neighborhood focus that we’re working on right now.”
“Most of our decisions have been citywide,” Walsh said. “So we really haven’t had that conversation about East Boston. At some point, do we recommend restaurants shut down, things like that? We haven’t gotten there. But we’re watching all that very closely.”
Even as more students phase in, Walsh noted that no school in the city will ever have more than 50 percent of its normal numbers on any given day as part of the hybrid approach. During the press conference, he thanked numerous members of the Boston Public Schools community, including Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, who had called for a remote-first, phased-in reopening.
Walsh said school officials had recently surveyed local families and found a clearly “divided” response among the 8,000 responses, which make up about 15 percent of the district.
“This is not a decision where there’s a consensus,” he said. “We have families who want kids to go back to school. We have families that feel that kids shouldn’t go back in school, they’re not comfortable in sending their kids to school yet.”
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who had called for a remote start, tweeted Friday afternoon that the plan was a “relief,” but criticized the “delay” in the announcement for eating into teachers’ and families’ preparation time.
“Today we’re scrambling to make arrangements with just a month to go before classes start—exactly what all were advocating to avoid,” Wu said.
Walsh and Cassellius have said it was important to take the time to make the correct decision, which they said was based on science and public health data.
During the press conference Friday, they also stressed the importance of phasing students back “as soon as safely possible” in order to educate students with higher needs and close the achievement gaps across socioeconomic and racial lines.
“Every day outside the classroom is a lost opportunity for many students,” Walsh said.
Still, in a letter Friday to families, Cassellius noted that students who opt out of the two-day-a-week hybrid model and instead go with remote learning five days a week will not lose their spot in class. School officials sent families a form Wednesday if they want to change their initial preference.
“We understand, as the last several months have demonstrated, that things can and do change,” she said during the press conference.
Above all, Walsh emphasized community members should continue to follow guidelines around wearing masks, hand washing, and social distancing in order for students to return to school at all.
“This certainly is not a time for complacency,” he said.
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