BPS officials tour facilities in Dorchester and Mattapan as re-opening looms

BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius points to multilingual signage posted at the Mildred Avenue K-8 school in Mattapan. Katie Trojano photo

While remote learning for Boston Public School students will begin on Monday, Sept. 21, select students may be back in classrooms for in-person learning as early as October. BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius led reporters on a tour of two BPS schools in Dorchester and Mattapan on Wednesday, pointing out new technology and protective barriers that are being installed as teachers make their final preparations.

A final agreement was reached Thursday after weeks of negotiation between BPS officials and the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) detailing reopening measures.Key components of the memorandum include a facilities wealth-through with health and safety teams, alternative work options for high-risk educators, random covid testing for 5 percent of BTU membership weekly, technology and laptops for paraprofessionals by Sept. 21, and a waiver allowing all BTU members to bring any school-aged children in grades K-12 to school with them for any fully remote learning times if they cannot find child care.

“I want to thank the teachers for working on an agreement which is a result of months of work between the Boston School Department, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, and BTU President Jessica Tang. The focus of this framework is ensuring the safety for everyone in our schools,” Mayor Martin Walsh said in a Thursday press conference.

Desks in a classroom are positioned at least six feet apart at the Mildred Ave. K-8 school

Teachers are back in school buildings this week participating in professional development and family engagement sessions until Sept. 18. Students will begin learning from their devices at home on Sept. 21. Certain groups that have been prioritized for in-person learning will be welcomed back to their classrooms in groups on Oct. 1. On Oct. 12, special education public day schools are scheduled for a transition to in-person learning four days a week.

Students prioritized for classroom learning will include some English Language (EL) learners; those with disabilities in inclusion classrooms with high needs; children experiencing homelessness and those in the care of the Department of Children and Families; and students who attend special education public day schools. Group B will begin on Oct. 1 and 2 (Thurs./Fri.); and group A will begin on October 5 and 6 (Mon./Tues.)

“It has been an all-hands-on deck approach to getting our schools ready for our kids and I just couldn’t be more proud of the incredible work that has been done,” Cassellius told reporters outside of the Mildred Avenue K-8 school in Mattapan. “I can’t tell you the number of people who have stepped up to ensure that we are opening our doors safely.”

Today —Sept. 10— was supposed to be the first day of class for all BPS students, she noted.

“Typically the mayor is with us and there are lots of high fives and hugs. But we all know that today we’re living in a different reality, a new normal. We’ve worked all summer and through the spring to get ready for this moment,” said Cassellius.

Mayor Martin Walsh reported Tuesday that the city has seen a new low in its Covid-19 positive test rate — a 1.7 percent positive rate, down by 2.3 and 2.7 percent from two previous weeks.

“This was good news for us in being able to have more of our students in our buildings,” said Cassellius. “We continue to watch these numbers closely over the next several weeks to do all we can as a school community so that we can open our doors to our children and staff.”

The superintendent answers questions from reporters in Mattapan.

After surveying parents on their preferred return method over the summer, Cassellius said that overall BPS families were essentially split in their responses.

“About 50 percent of our families are saying they want to come back in person and about 50 percent want to be in remote learning,” she said. “But I do think as the confidence builds that families will come in. They will see that facilities are ready and they’ll want to have their children back in schools.”

Cassllieus and a team of BPS officials visited Mildred Avenue and the Mather Elementary School in Dorchester on Wednesday, detailing specific preparations the district has made to prepare its facilities for an eventual return to in person learning.

During the tour, officials showed reporters that schools are equipped with plexiglass dividers and vinyl separators as well as electrostatic sprayers, commonly known as foggers, that will be used to infect surfaces in school buildings every Wednesday, Saturday, and anytime school officials deem cleaning necessary within a classroom or large space.

Pat Brophy, chief of operations for the city, shows off the new pelxiglass dividers.

Classrooms will also be equipped with a large bottle of disinfectant spray and the district has ordered 150,000 reusable and 2 million disposable masks. The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) has reviewed and approved the daily sanitizing protocols that BPS has put in place.

Markings on stairwells and hallways are in place to promote one-way streams of foot traffic and multilingual signage reminding students to socially distance and wash their hands appear on walls all around the schools.

“Hopefully students will help us make more signage that is student friendly and help participate in building the sense of community and safety that they want to be in,” said Cassellius.

To enhance ventilation, classroom doors will be propped open, and Cassellius said that district officials worked with Boston Fire Chief Jack Dempsey on safety guidelines.

“As students return you will notice that we’ll have doors propped open. Thanks to Commissioner Dempsey for some flexibility [to allow] having these doors open so that air can flow in and out,” said Cassellius.

In facilities that don’t have HVAC ventilation systems, windows will be open year-round. Of the system’s 123 schools, about 35 are equipped with an operational HVAC system.

Sam DePina, chief operations officer for BPS, talks about the district's HVAC systems like the one at Mildred Ave. K-8.

“Each of our 123 buildings are very different and complex that’s why this has been such a difficult time,” Cassellius explained at the Mildred Avenue school. “Right now, we’re at one of our newer facilities that has an HVAC system and other more modern features—larger classrooms, gyms, and teacher spaces, and the sizes of classrooms are more uniform.”

“We are also going beyond state guidance and we’ve purchased over 3,000 fans so that air can go in and out for proper ventilation,” she said.

The school district’s plumbing division has evaluated and repaired 2,200 bathrooms and repaired or replaced 7,000 windows. At the Mather School atop Meetinghouse Hill, 36 windows have been repaired to improve ventilation, said Samuel DePina, chief operations officer for BPS.

“The BPS plan meets or exceeds DESE guidelines,” added Pat Brophy, the city’s chief of operations. Brophy explained that while the state requires each classroom to have a minimum of one operational window per classroom, BPS has ensured that multiple windows will be open. A total of $14 million has been spent to repair and maintain buildings since the closure last spring, added Brophy.

Cassellius said that parents and teachers will have an opportunity to walk through buildings in the coming weeks, and that teachers are currently learning how to involve families more strategically and navigate new technology that is helpful for virtual instruction.

Cassellius speaks to Marcia Riddick, principal at the Mather Elementary school.

“Educators will spend at least the next 2 weeks of professional development learning those new platforms and developing the new systems for how we can work both remotely and in the hybrid forms,” she said.

The superintendent said she was confident in the progress the district has made to prepare its facilities to welcome back students, but acknowledged that a rise in covid cases could come in the fall.

“Public health information guides our decision making and we are only going to bring our students and staff back into our buildings if it is safe to do so,” she said.

“But what we know about the coronavirus is that it does rapidly evolve and that we have to be nimble and flexible in order to meet the many complex needs of our facilities and our students as well.”