Mayor Martin Walsh and Supt. Brenda Cassellius announced on Wednesday morning they would be putting on hold the phased-in approach to returning to school – pushing back the return of kindergartners one week – due to an increase in the percentage of positive tests citywide that seem to be coming mostly from those under 29 attending parties and large gatherings.
Walsh and Cassellius said they had set a benchmark of 4 percent positive tests to stop the phased-in plan to return to school and to re-evaluate it. By the end of last week, the percent positive was 4.1 percent – after having been below 2 percent for most of the summer months, according to Health Chief Marty Martinez. Positive cases are increasing in every neighborhood, but particularly in Hyde Park, he said, and most of those positive citywide are under 29 and disproportionately Latino or Latina.
The pause in the school return plan does not affect the highest-needs special education and homeless students that returned to school on Oct. 1 – though they were not able to go to school Wednesday. They will continue to go to school, and the decision was largely framed around being able to keep them in school and keep them safe while the rest of the student population continues to work from home or in learning hubs outside of school buildings.
“The critics are going to criticize us and criticize me, but the decision we’re making today is the right one and that is to allow our most vulnerable students to continue to go to school. If I feel it’s too dangerous for that, I’ll shut school down again. I’m not too shy to do that.”
Said Cassellius, “We have decided to continue prioritizing our students with high needs for in-person learning. Our hybrid approach is opt-in…We are closely watching public health metrics to see if this is a trend or a bump in the road and if we need to evaluate our plans and adjust accordingly.”
The decision was immediately backed by the Boston Teacher’s Union (BTU), which has advocated a conservative approach to returning to in-person school since early last summer. BTU President Jessica Tang said her members supported the Administration’s decision, but hoped there would have been more planning for this scenario ahead of time.
“(The) highest need students and families are our top priority right now – and we are in active dialogue with the Boston Public Schools to ensure we have the appropriate staffing in place to support those students and families, without violating the safety guidelines and agreement that the district and city themselves previously proposed and which was jointly agreed upon,” she said in a statement. “While the safety agreements agreed to by the City of Boston, BPHC, and the BTU make in-person work optional effective (Thursday) and until the rates go below 4%, we do expect many educators will be opting to work in-person – despite the increasing risks – in order to support our highest need students while we work with stakeholders to establish a framework for safe, rational scheduling.
“We are disappointed that recommendations we had previously put forward to establish a contingency plan for this scenario had not previously been adopted by BPS, despite educators putting forward many solutions to ensure we had scheduling plans in place in the event positivity rates exceed 4% as they now have,” she continued.
In the phased-in return plan, students started Phase 1 completely online. Phase 2 started on Oct. 1 and consisted of the highest needs students returning to school. Those students will continue to go to school under the announcement, but Phase 3 – which included K0, K1 and K2 students returning on Oct. 15 – has been pushed back to Oct. 22. Even that, though will be evaluated.
The other phases for other grades and high school have not been moved back yet, but could be if numbers do not come below the 4 percent benchmark.
Walsh said the district is complex and cannot be compared to a private school that has one location and is easier to safe-guard. Many private schools have started school in-person and continue to operate that way.
“The complexity of our district compared to a private school is different,” he said. “A private school is one school and they can get protocols in that one school much easier. Our district may have a student waking up in Dorchester and their school is in Brighton and we have to bus them all the way over there. I’m glad we did the phased-in approach because it allows us the opportunity to not disrupt school. I’m hoping we can get the numbers down and then move forward with our phased-in approach. We’re living with COVID-19.”
He said the City and the COVID-19 numbers are nowhere near the benchmark for having to shut everything down. He said there is a long way to go before that happens. In fact, he said the 4 percent benchmark for pausing the school re-opening is rather conservative, as most state and federal guidelines recommend a 5 percent positive test rate as a floor for re-evaluating plans. However, Walsh said it is in line with their cautious approach to re-opening.
Part of the reason for the uptick in positive tests has been the pattern for many in the city to attend large gatherings and large backyard parties – particularly young people. The mayor again asked people to prioritize children getting back to school ahead of going to a party, as both seem to be in direct correlation. “I’m asking everyone to avoid parties and large gatherings of all kinds,” he said. “That’s where we’re seeing our numbers come from. Please don’t put a party ahead of getting our kids back into school.”