The BTU has always advocated for the safe return of students to in-person learning and our advocacy has enabled the district to safely do so with a thoughtful phased-in approach and predictability for both our families and educators. We have never objected to students returning in person with the safety conditions we have advocated for, won and continue to enforce, and were glad to see that the district had implemented those conditions prior to the return of K0-3 students last week. We were also relieved to hear that educators could finally get vaccinations soon as well.
The vote that the Board took today, however, is problematic for several reasons.
First, while many families have chosen to bring their students back to in-person classrooms, many BPS families have also chosen to stay remote. A large percentage of these families are Black, Latinx and Asian–all groups that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and historically underserved by the state, particularly in regards to funding. If that is what those families are choosing, their students also deserve energy, time and resources focused on ensuring those students have access to the highest quality remote learning possible. It is a racial equity issue that DESE must also address and not forget. During this pandemic, each family must decide what is best for them and their students and others, including the state, should not be deciding for them.
Second, the Commissioner is not an epidemiologist or doctor. He should not be given the authority to decide when it is safe for in-person learning or not. These decisions should be made by and informed by local health commissions, local education leaders who can share what conditions actually are like on the ground and elected leaders that best know the community and families being served. It is a dangerous precedent to allow one person to make those decisions without any local accountability or local control. The panelists invited to speak spoke repeatedly of the importance of masks and impact of transmission through air droplets. What about the classrooms where students can’t mask or socially distance themselves? Can rooms without windows and proper HVAC systems be used? Science tells us this matters, and the reality is many of our schools just don’t have enough rooms that can be used because they are lacking ventilation and filtration. Will these realities be a part of the decision making?
Third, in Boston, we have a plan. All students who prefer in-person instruction will be able to be back in the classroom by April. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is ensuring that the current safety protocols in place continue to be strictly enforced and that the resources for safety mitigation efforts, such as pool surveillance testing, vaccinations and timely contact tracing are actually implemented and are not taken away. These are the types of efforts that the state should be focused on if they want to bring more students back to the classroom. Unfortunately, the district is currently unable to provide the state-supported pool surveillance testing for students because the state is only providing staffing for early education students and only until mid-April. Districts are expected to find staffing on their own from mid April through the end of June. School nurses are not able to safely add yet another responsibility onto their plates without jeopardizing other necessary health-related duties. Many districts declined the state-sponsored pool testing because they did not have resources and staffing needed to implement the program.
An additional challenge is ensuring that all students, whether in-person or remote, have access to high quality instruction. Simultaneous teaching of in-person and remote students continues to be a challenge, with many remote students – the majority of whom are students of color – receiving disrupted instruction because educators have to split time while also teaching students in-person. Teaching in person is very different than teaching virtually, and, unfortunately, instruction for both suffers when teachers are asked to teach simultaneously. Smaller class sizes and additional staff would help to address both groups of students. The state should be helping schools gain access to the resources and staffing needed to ensure both groups of students receive optimal instruction.
This vote may politically appease some, but in practicality, it leaves many questions unanswered for those who are actually tasked with implementing the policies and completely ignores the actual needs of the most marginalized families in the state. If the state and board are actually committed to racial equity and equity in general, much more attention, resources and time should be focused on supporting the families that have been most impacted by the pandemic and getting the resources they need to their districts and schools instead of diverting attention and resources away from painstaking plans already in motion, created in response to DESE’s previous guidance.
Again, we share the goal of having all of our students back in person and quickly and safely as possible. But it must be done thoughtfully and realistically with the stakeholders most impacted at the table to inform decisions on how it is best done. Mandates alone bely the work and resources it takes to actually make the mandate a reality, and we can only hope that the state will follow up with the resources needed to make this decision more than just a political statement.