Families, Students Have Big Decision to Make on School in Coming Weeks

Families with children in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) will be facing a major decision in the coming days and weeks regarding whether they want to choose to participate in a hybrid, in-person learning model for the fall, or to opt-out and have their children learn in a complete remote environment.

Supt. Brenda Cassellius released a draft plan with Senior Advisor Tammy Pust on Tuesday night, and held a media briefing on Wednesday prior to the School Committee meeting Wednesday night. The push is on currently as BPS prepares to submit its initial plan on Monday, a plan that requires the district to submit three plans  – one for all remote, one for a hybrid model and one for all in-person learning. Now, they are having many different meetings to review the plans and try to get input.

“This is a difficult decision and it has weighed on all of us,” she said. “I understand the concern in the community and understand the real complex nature of this decision. I want to assure the community that the mayor, Health Chief Marty Martinez, myself, our teachers and school leaders are putting safety as the number one priority and we are really looking very carefully at the numbers and making sure we don’t get too far ahead of ourselves…That’s why we have put this plan out there early to discuss it and get input.”

Seemingly, the schools have been planning for the re-opening since June, even before last school year was over. Throughout July, plans have been presented, and deadlines have been extended. Cassellius and Pust stressed this is just a draft, and they want more information before they make a decision.

“We are just now starting to put the meat on the bones of this plan so we can safely re-open this fall,” said Cassellius.

Added Pust, “It’s not a final draft but a plan. However, this is 60 pages of our besting thinking so far on all the challenges we have and wisdom we have brought to be able to address these challenges.”

The submission to the state will really only consider two options, Pust said, as bus transportation makes it impossible under the current occupancy restrictions to ever transport every student to a building for in-person learning. Bus transportation is a key component in that part of the discussion, as buses will only be able to transport about 50 percent of their normal student capacity.

“That has a lot of ramifications,” she said. “Think of it as dominoes…The in-person plan will be very short because it will say it is not possible. To do that without transportation…To only get half those seats at a particular time means it wouldn’t be logistically possible to get them there.”

So it is, the decision for parents will be to opt-in to the district’s hybrid model – which still is not a done deal – or to opt-out and go fully remote.

“Every family will get the chance to decide if they want to participate in the hybrid model or if they want to opt out and go fully remote,” Pust said. “Every parent has that option…If the science says it’s safe, we will start with the hybrid model.”

That will be a key decision due to transportation and school building space. Once the district knows how many students will not be returning to the building, but will stay home with remote learning, they can begin to plan at each individual school for the space necessary to accommodate in-person learning. The hybrid plan has students divided into two groups. Group A would attend school Monday and Tuesday, but learn at home Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Group B would learn at home Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but learn in school Thursday and Friday. No one would be at the school on Wednesday, as it would be sanitized and cleaned, as it would also be on the weekends.

That will also make way for a final group of students who need extra attention and might go in-person up to four days a week. That group hasn’t been defined and is dependent on space, but could include Special Education students, English Learnings and vocational school students.

The physical buildings have been worked on all summer to prepare for some return of students in what will be a new and different school world – especially for little kids. The report indicated that HVAC systems had been upgraded over the summer with better filter systems, and Cassellius said they have identified spaces in buildings that just are not usable – such as classrooms that did not have windows or any ventilation.

Meanwhile, she said this entire summer, and right now, they have been doing assessments of building windows and fixed or replaced windows that didn’t open or couldn’t open. That is important, she said, for ventilation. The plan also calls for school communities to utilize outdoor classroom options as much as possible in the warmer days this fall.

Another physical plant aspect will be how far desks are spaced apart, and BPS will stick with the six-foot distance model. However, they won’t remove desks from the classrooms to make that spacing. Instead, they will use desks alternating between groups. That way no student is sharing a desk with another, and the desks remain a safe distance away.

Another key operations for in-person hybrid and all-remote will be attendance and grading policies. Grading won’t change that much from the standard teacher grading systems, with progress reports and an A-F scale. However, attendance will be put on the Aspen system so it is used universally. Last Spring, many were doing it differently and it was confusing. Remote learners will also be monitored using Google Classroom for engagement and using Aspen for attendance.

Finally, Cassellius said they would be measuring student progress and social emotional well-being in the first weeks of school. Academically, they will use the district’s Illuminate platform to test students to see where they are academically – if they’ve progressed or fallen behind since COVID-19 hit.

“We’re going to need to know how schools are doing,” she said.

The district will be contacting each parent in the coming days and weeks to begin thinking about and making the decision about remote learning or the hybrid model. To comment on the district plan or ask questions, e-mail [email protected].

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