School shutdown for year seen as right call; educators focusing on the now, wary about the fall

Racial, economic disparities in spotlight

Last week’s decision by Gov. Charlie Baker to keep all public and private schools closed through the end of the academic year drew support from city officials and leaders in the education field, with most viewing the move as the right decision in light of COVID-19 safety concerns while acknowledging worries about negative impacts on learning.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, agreed with the governor’s call. “We are glad that Gov. Baker has heeded the calls from educators, health care workers, parents, and municipal leaders by recognizing that a return to school in May is not feasible and that learning should continue remotely for the remainder of the academic year,” she wrote in a statement.

She added: “We hope that he will also begin to heed the calls from similar groups to begin more intentionally addressing the statewide racial and economic disparities that this pandemic is exacerbating and revealing across the Commonwealth both with regard to health and education.”

In a press conference on Monday, Mayor Martin Walsh provided some updates to BPS’s ongoing transition to remote learning in noting that the city has already distributed more than 1,200 wi-fi hotspots and more than 33,000 laptops to families who lacked access. Half a million meals have been dished out to students through the city’s student meal site program, he added.

“Superintendent Cassellius and BPS are finalizing plans for remote learning for the remainder of the school year,” said the mayor.

“The next phase of learning from home will start on Mon., May 4. Families will receive additional information from the superintendent later this week about attendance, grading, and scheduling. Schools will be creating individualized learning plans for students with the highest needs to make sure no one falls behind.”

A BPS survey aimed at collecting parental feedback is currently soliciting information from families to assess their needs related to financial stability, food security, and childcare services, among other concerns. City Councillor at-large Annissa Essaibi-George told the Reporter that continued communication between BPS and parents will be important.

“We have to continue to seek families out, create virtual spaces for the time being where parents can access and influence decisions,” she said.

A parent and former BPS teacher herself, Essaibi-George credited educators for their hard work in trying to minimize learning loss during the last several weeks.

“Remote learning has been a learning process for everybody—for families, for kids, for teachers, for districts— and we’ve spent some time over the last month or so figuring it out, working out kinks in the system,” she said.

“Some classrooms and some teachers were more ready for it than others, some households were certainly more ready for it than others...as a city councillor and especially as a former teacher, I know that the work our school staff has committed to – making sure that they are able to reach every child and support every child in our district – has been endless.”

In a Monday City Council session held remotely in preparation for a BPS hearing later in the week, Essaibi-George said she emphasized fulfilling BPS’s commitment to having a full-time nurse, guidance counselor, and mental health professional in every school building when schools re-open (Many school mental health professionals are checking in with students now by using telehealth, she said), calling the maintenance of socio-emotional support systems for students — which Mayor Walsh alluded to in his press conference —a “huge concern.”

She noted that “this is an important time in kids’ lives, and especially for kids experiencing homelessness and kids who require Special Ed, things have been turned upside down. So it’s up to us, it’s up to me as a city councillor to make sure those resources are in place...we know that as kids are separated from their school community, and from the resources they access from the school community, that those resources in particular are more important than ever.”

Fears of students falling behind top of the list of concerns for Latoya Gayle, a Dorchester resident and founder of Boston School Finder, a digital resource outlet that provides information about Boston schools. As a mother of three schoolaged children, Gayle occupies a space along the interface of parents, students, and teachers in the Boston education system.

“In general, online learning is great to supplement structures that we have in schools now,” said Gayle. “I think when you think about it as the primary mode of learning, it becomes more complicated...educational systems were not prepared to switch to remote instruction and learning.

“My youngest just turned five, and so when I think about all the little kids, we don’t want to be in a situation where in three years, everybody’s wondering why the third graders are not reading at grade level because they missed the part of the school year where you would be learning these fundamentals of reading and literacy...I worry about my oldest, a high school junior, also a really important year.”

In the weeks since schools initially closed due to the coronavirus, Boston School Finder has retooled its website to include a database of COVID-19 related information, providing families with resources and regular updates. It remains unclear if parents will be able to use the site for its original purpose — to match their child with the right-fitting school — by the time the upcoming school year rolls around in September. Gayle said she was wary about the process by which a solution will be decided on once schools are given the go ahead to reopen. Given the disparities that already existed between certain schools before the crisis began, she knows that students from low-income communities and communities of color are at risk of suffering more than others.

“The impact is not going to be equal on how this is felt,” said Gayle. “Some people say, ‘Everybody’s in the same boat now.’ No, we’re not all in the same boat, because some people were in a cruise ship before and others were in a dinghy. So we have to really be thinking about how this has magnified the inequalities and inequities that already existed, but also to make sure that parent voice is included when we are thinking about solutions for what is happening now and how it’s going to impact our children’s future. It’s imperative that family voice is included in that, and especially the families who are the most vulnerable."

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