Parents, Students Seek Better Plan Than Remote Learning

The loosely formed group of parents of school-age children who are calling for a better educational plan in Charlestown has tightened up, grown substantially and sent a message that remote schooling is no longer viable.

The group, now known as Voices for BPS Families has begun to join with other neighborhoods, like South Boston, who have similar concerns about remote schooling and the vague plan by the Boston Public Schools leadership for getting kids back in the classroom. That has been buttressed by a petition that is nearly 500 signatures this week, and a growing sense of frustration after a letter from Supt. Brenda Cassellius last week failed to spell out anything innovative that’s being done to go back to in-person learning for those that want, or need, it.

Parents from Charlestown have organized two protests in the last month as part of the new Voices for BPS Families. Here, they are shown protesting at City Hall last month to get kids back in school. They staged another protest Wednesday, Dec. 2, as well.

“First of all, we don’t think any family or teacher who doesn’t want to return should be forced to do so,” said Corey Zehngebot, a parent of a K1 student in the Harvard Kent School and a former Boston Planning and Development Agency (BPDA) planner. “The City has done a great job on so many fronts with COVID-19, but when it comes to getting back in school, I’m throwing my hands up and doing so with a lot of other parents across the city…I think we should get back to what is the business of the day. I don’t care who is fighting with whom; let’s focus on just getting the kids back in school. The children and families have sacrificed and been patient, but no more.”

The group formed in late October when sharing stories at the playground during an outdoor break for their kids. So many shared the same problems that the group formed fast and grew exponentially as parents found remote learning to be impossible to manage whether working from home or having to go to a workplace. This week, they have staged their second protest in-person at City Hall with their children to let those making plans know that their plans aren’t working for a lot of people. They’ve also met with several City Councilors and held a Zoom meeting where they were surprised to have Mayor Martin Walsh and Teacher’s Union President Jessica Tang.

The group is made up mostly of parents from across the spectrum in Charlestown, but has grown citywide for all grades and all types of needs – whether special needs, vulnerable learners, young learners or general education students. The message no matter what group or what neighborhood is that remote learning isn’t cutting it, and there needs to be something innovative that can be done so that students don’t fall behind while their suburban peers head off to in-person learning and they don’t.

Zehngebot has a K1 daughter, and she has never set foot in a school – having started school this fall in the pandemic and not being able to ever “go” to school. The other day, Zehngebot said, her daughter asked her if she could just go to the school building- a good question that the mother of two couldn’t answer.

“My daughter can’t do Zoom at her age; she’s too wiggly,” said Zehngebot. “She’s not set foot in a school building yet, but that isn’t a hardship comparatively. What is deeply troubling to not just myself, but also to everyone across the city is that the City has had 10 months to design something better than this and hasn’t done it. In that same time we’ve built a field hospital, put in eviction protections, started a small business loan program, expedited permitting for outdoor dining, elected a president and now have three vaccines in the works, but there is still no good plan to get kids back in school. In a city like Boston, where we have the best and brightest, it’s a shame we can’t come up with a better plan.

“We realize we’re a bunch of white families in Charlestown, but we want to lean on that white privilege to get attention and action for the whole city,” she continued.

Some of the ideas being floated are looking into pool testing, which has been effective in other places to create a type of bubble environment to protect healthy students and staff and prevent spread. The group has also been encouraging the City to look at what other places are doing. Both New York City and Somerville have opened their public schools and consider them essential, though parents point out in Boston there is indoor dining permitted and considered essential, while students are kept at home. The parents also point to the large amounts of data that tend to show schools, particularly elementary schools, are not dangerous places for spreading the virus. Meanwhile, they also point to the large numbers of “Learning Pods” popping up at after-school providers and non-profits around the city – such as the Boys & Girls Club in Charlestown – that somehow have kids in-person learning remotely, and it’s all been done safely since September with no large outbreaks reported.

She said one “out of the box” solution they’ve pointed to recently is to use facilities that might be outside the footprint of BPS. With so many hotel function rooms empty, office buildings going vacant and other properties not in use right now, a temporary solution could be to use those spaces to spread more kids out and keep them in “pods” for contact tracing purposes.

“There are so many spaces outside their footprint that could possibly be utilized in this time,” she said. “That’s true especially downtown where there is single-digit occupancy in some buildings as of December.”

Zehngebot said the message that she hopes the School Committee and BPS leaders hear from them is that their patience has run out, and their influence is spreading across the city.

“It is really, really shameful and I’ve had it,” she said. “We need action for 2021. The Boston I know and worked for was a leader in pioneering solutions and it feels like we’ve been a laggard on this now.”

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