For Catholic schools, class is in session — and in person 

Boston parochial schools appear to have reopened safely this fall. Why can’t public schools, Baker asks?

WHILE THE SCHOOL YEAR has been upended for thousands of public school students across the state, Corrin Stokes’s school day this fall looked largely the same as it did last year. After donning her school uniform and eating breakfast, the friendly 7-year-old hops in the car with her mother, Arleaya Martin, for the drive from their home in Dorchester to Mission Grammar School, where she’s a second-grader.  

As Massachusetts school districts contend with fully remote instruction or a hybrid model that involves students coming to school for part of the week, it has been business as usual for most Catholic schools in the Boston archdiocese. 

With 31,000 students across 100 schools in the Greater Boston area, the Catholic schools represent the state’s second largest school district after Boston and they have approached the pandemic very differently than public schools. “All of our focus was on how to do it, not whether to do it,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of the archdiocese schools, about the fall reopening with in-person instruction.

Second-grader Corrin Stokes in her classroom at Mission Grammar School. (Photo courtesy of Mission Grammar School)

A handful of Catholic schools in communities with high coronavirus rates, such as East Boston Central Catholic School, started the year with only remote learning for older students. And rising rates in Boston have prompted several others to pull back. Mission Grammar, as a precaution, announced a two-week pause starting this week in its fully in-person instruction. 

But the school has recorded no coronavirus cases among students or staff. As long as the community rates don’t keep rising, said Ali Dutson, the head of Mission Grammar, the school will likely return to full in-person classes after the two-week interregnum. When it reopens, the school will begin weekly COVID-19 testing of all staff. 

“We have had so much success in-person, and it’s so critical for our scholars,” Dutson said. “We just want to make sure we’re able to get back to our model that has been working so well for us.” 

About 70 percent of Mission Grammar students come from low-income households, and more than 90 percent are students of color. More than 80 percent receive financial aid to attend. 

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said it’s clear that lower-income students will see particularly steep learning losses from extended school closures. “Some students are suffering grievously more as a result of not being back in school than others,” he said. 

There are differences between Catholic schools and public school districts that made it easier for parochial schools to start the year with students back in classrooms. Catholic schools tend to have smaller class sizes and don’t rely on school bus transportation to the same degree as many districts. They also don’t have unionized teaching staff with whom reopening plans had to be negotiated.

Still, the return to classrooms by Catholic school students who live in the same neighborhoods as public school students have been home since schools shut down last March makes for a striking contrast. With increasing evidence that schools don’t appear to be a significant source of spread for coronavirus, it also raises the question of whether it might be safer than many have believed for public schools to resume in-person instruction.

Albert Hayle, director of enrollment at Mission Grammar, offers a “virtual hug” to arriving students.

Gov. Charlie Baker, who has been urging school districts to bring students back to classrooms, pointed to the successful reopening of Catholic schools on Tuesday. “There is very little evidence that this virus spreads in schools,” he said at a State House press briefing, “and in fact we have one of the best active demonstrations about in-person learning going on anywhere right now, which is parochial schools.” 

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said reopening schools for younger grades seems particularly safe. “The evidence so far suggests that we can likely open schools — especially K-5 — pretty safely in most parts of the country,” Jha told the education news site Chalkbeat last week. “I’m getting slowly but surely persuaded that I may have been too cautious.”

Martin, a single mother who works in fundraising for a national conservation nonprofit, said her daughter initially voiced unease about returning to school this fall at Mission Grammar, a K-6 elementary school that also operates an infant and toddler day care program in Boston’s Mission Hill neighborhood. “I was comfortable in her going back. My daughter was very uncomfortable,” said Martin. “She’s very aware, she watches the news. She said, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to get coronavirus.’”

The school offered families the option of having children attend in-person or remotely via real-time video connection to their classroom. Martin said she convinced her daughter to at least go for the first day so she could meet her new teacher and see the classroom in case she wound up doing remote learning from home. 

“Corrin has been in every day since,” said Martin. “She said, ‘I’m comfortable. We’re not next to each other, we’re spaced out. Everyone’s wearing their masks.’”

Dutson, the Mission Grammar leader, said the staff worked hard all summer to hone their skills at using video technology to engage students learning from home while in-person instruction was taking place. Meanwhile, the school benefited from an already-planned $2 million makeover during the summer that included installation of a new ventilation system and motion-activated sinks and water fountains. 

The school has 190 students in grades K-6 with average class sizes of 15. When the school opened in mid-September, about half of the families opted for remote learning, but by the fourth week that was down to 20 percent. Families can switch at any point between remote and in-person. “Every week we’ve seen an uptick in in-person and a downward slope for our remote learners,” Dutson said of enrollment prior to this week’s decision.

Martin said the school renovation, plus the strict adherence to health guidelines, gave her confidence that it was safe for her daughter to be back in the classroom. She said the school leaders also went out of their way to keep parents informed, holding a weekly Zoom “coffee hour” for families that has continued into the fall. 

“We were kept in the loop every step of the way,” said Martin. 

The school staggers arrival time, with half of students assigned to arrive between 7:30 and 8 a.m. and half from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. Dismissal is also broken into two shifts. On arrival, every student’s temperature is taken before entering the building, and the family member bringing them is quizzed about the health of everyone in their home. If anyone in the household has had a fever, the child is sent home. 

Daily temperature checks are now part of the arrival routine for Mission Grammar students.

Students in second grade and higher are required to wear masks, while it is encouraged for younger students. Hand washing is now a regular part of the day, and students eat lunch at their desks. Specialty instruction like science and music is now via Zoom in the classroom rather than having those teachers come in-person in order to help maintain the cohort “bubbles” for each class. 

I’m not going to lie. I was nervous before we began school,” said Christina Vidana, a 3rd grade teacher at Mission Grammar. 

At 52, she is one of the older teachers at the school, and Vidana’s husband is diabetic, putting him in a high-risk group for COVID-19 complications. She showers as soon as she gets home each day, and says she’s vigilant about following safety precautions. “I would not be here if I did not feel comfortable,” she said. 

Vidana’s class has 15 students, four of whom are learning remotely from home. “It’s hard because I was the hugger and I was the high-fiver,” she said of the new distancing rules the school is following. But Vidana said her students have adjusted to the new classroom reality, and she is convinced they are better off being at school. 

Of the 100 Catholic schools in the Boston archdiocese — a large swath of Eastern Massachusetts that reaches north to the New Hampshire border, south almost to Plymouth, and west beyond Framingham — 62 are open for full in-person instruction, with families given the option of remote instruction. 

As of this week, 20 schools were using hybrid models or had younger students attending and older students at home, and eight were fully remote. But many of these schools were employing the models temporarily, like Mission Grammar, with the idea of returning to full in-person classes within the next week or two.

“We’re trying to keep our schools open as long as we safely can,” said Carroll, the archdiocese superintendent, who added that one knows the trajectory the virus will take going into the winter. “Some schools are taking a pause,” he said of this week’s pull-back from full in-person learning at Mission Grammar and several other schools. “But I think what people are going to conclude is that the rising community rates are not leading to dramatically rising rates within the schools.” 

There have been 56 cases among the archdiocese system’s 35,200 students and staff since the school year started, 49 of them among students and 7 among staff. Carroll said every case appears to have resulted from exposure outside of schools, with no transmission documented within a school community. Of the cases, none have been hospitalized. 

“Our data right now suggests that we’ve been able to keep kids and adults very safe,” said Carroll. 

He also said it’s a myth to think that children are necessarily being kept safe from coronavirus by having schools closed. “I walk through my neighborhood and kids are wrestling on the lawn, they’re playing football, there are a bunch of teenagers hanging out with no masks,” said Carroll. “The theory for sending everybody home is this non-existent perfect world.” 

Baker echoed that at his briefing on Tuesday. “It’s a jump ball in my mind about whether having all those kids at home, fraternizing with their friends, not wearing a mask, not socially distancing on the off hours is probably every bit as risky, maybe more so based on what’s going on with the parochial schools, than those kids being in school.” 

About half of the roughly 950,000 public school students in the state are still engaged in fully remote learning from home while half of students, representing about 80 percent of all school districts, are following some form of in-person learning model, the majority of them employing a hybrid approach with students in school for part of the week.

Like the governor, Jeff Riley, the state education commissioner, has been pushing schools to return to in-person instruction. “We really need our kids back in school to the greatest extent possible,” said Riley. 

Last month, Riley wrote to 16 districts that opened the school year with fully remote instruction despite falling into a low category on the state’s color-coded map of COVID-19 cases, asking for more information about reopening plans. Last week, he said two of those districts, Watertown and East Longmeadow, would be subject to audits by the education department to look at their timeline for bringing students back. 

John Portz, the chairman of the Watertown school committee, said the district spent many hours developing its reopening plan and approved a phased-in return of students in early August, before the state unveiled its color-coded guideline for districts to follow. He said there was a lot of work to do to get buildings ready for the safe return of students and staff, including acquiring more than 300 air filters. 

Portz said the state initially made clear that school reopening was a locally-controlled decision. “Now it seems DESE doesn’t it see it that way and thinks we’re not going back soon enough,” he said, using the acronym for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. 

The district, which serves 2,600 students, has been providing in-person instruction to about 330 high-needs students, and it began this week bringing back elementary students, using a hybrid model. Middle and high school students aren’t scheduled to return to buildings until November. Watertown currently falls in the middle “yellow” zone for coronavirus cases. 

“It’s a compliance-oriented approach, which is not so helpful,” Portz said of the state audit of the district. “We’re all focused on how do we make this work best for our teachers and our students, and that’s where we need to be focused, rather than having to spend a lot of time justifying a decision we made with broad community support.”

“I know there are families that are struggling because kids are not in school,” said Debra King, president of the Watertown teachers union. “At the same time, we’re all trying to do what’s best for our kids, and what’s best for our communities. This is uncharted waters for all of us.” 

Reville, the former state education secretary, said the school reopening debate involves the weighing of risks. 

“Both adults and children need to be protected,” Reville said. He said students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are at risk of significant learning loss as well as social and emotional harm from continuing to be away from school, while school teachers and staff, who are at much greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 than children, are rightly concerned about their health. “We’re in a sometimes fierce competition between the interests of children and the interests of adults,” he said. 

The ability of Catholic schools to reopen safely, however, “should be proof positive that it’s possible,” he said. 

Helen Jenkins, an epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health, said we should be acting on the growing evidence of very little transmission among younger children. “We should at least be opening elementary schools, and planning for ways to open middle and high schools,” she said.

Jenkins lamented the fact that the state seems to have prioritized reopening restaurants and permitting other activity, while many schools are not back to in-person instruction. “I am worried that we’ve got things backwards,” she said. 

Despite all the talk about community positivity rates and the need for adequate ventilation systems in schools, a new research paper suggests political allegiances have also significantly shaped the decisions districts have made.

Michael Hartney, a political science professor at Boston College, and Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas examined reopening plans for more than 10,000 of the country’s roughly 13,000 school districts. They found — after adjusting for any differences in COVID-19 rates —  that districts where President Trump won more than 60 percent of the vote four years ago were much more likely to have opened with in-person instruction, while those that gave Hillary Clinton more than 60 percent of the vote were far more likely to have started with remote learning.

The study found a 17 percentage point difference in the likelihood that a district opened in-person between strongly pro-Trump and pro-Clinton communities.

Hartney speculates that a speech Trump gave in early July imploring districts to reopen turned an issue that had not been overtly partisan into yet another fault line of the country’s highly polarized political landscape. 

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

“Before he made those remarks you didn’t see this really neat divide on whether you thought schools should open,” said Hartney. “The issue of school openings became highly politicized.” He said it suggests there are districts that reopened that probably shouldn’t have, while others have remained closed despite very low COVID-19 rates. 

For Arleaya Martin, the pause in full-time in-person instruction at Mission Grammar, where her daughter will attend in-person one day this week and next week, is understandable until it’s clear whether the community COVID rate is still climbing. If the rates have stabilized, “I’m OK with them reopening in two weeks, knowing the measures the school has put in place,” she said. “We all have to be open and adapt to what’s going on.”