School struggles getting worse amid virus surge

Closures mount as remote learning no longer an option

AMID THE SURGE of COVID-19 cases, Cambridge Public Schools closed Monday and Tuesday to test 3,500 students. Superintendent Victoria Greer wrote to families Tuesday that 157 of 362 pools tested positive – meaning somewhere between 157 and over 1,000 students had COVID. But the district had not received individual results, so no one knew which students had the virus.

With no remote learning option, Cambridge opened Wednesday anyway, hoping some results would arrive overnight.

Cambridge may be extreme, but school districts throughout Massachusetts have been grappling with virus-related conditions that make it highly difficult to teach.

CommonWealth reported Monday that schools were anticipating severe staffing shortages, leading to a small number of delays and closures. That has panned out.

Around 1,000 teachers, students, and staff were absent in Worcester Wednesday, according to MassLive. According to the Boston Globe, there were nearly 1,000 staff, including 461 teachers, absent in Boston on Tuesday, leading Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to teach a fourth-grade class. There were more than 200 staff absences apiece in Lawrence and Lowell.

Weymouth High School closed Wednesday due to staffing shortages, and Watertown schools closed Tuesday to process pooled test results. Taconic High School and Reid Middle School in Pittsfield are closed for the remainder of the week due to staffing shortages. 

Students are absent in large numbers, too. More than 30 percent of Lawrence public school students were out Wednesday, along with 319 staff. New Bedford reported 261 student absences Monday.

Unlike last year, when schools were quick to switch to remote learning, Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has made clear remote learning is not an option this year. Schools that cancel in-person days must use snow days or make up time in June.

Westfield Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski summed up the conflict when he told CommonWealth there is no question in-person learning provides a superior education – but that’s no longer true if he is combining classes for a study hall or making up a day this summer in a building without air conditioning because the district lacks enough healthy, non-quarantined staff to teach in person right now.

Baker’s decision has angered teachers’ unions, who say schools need flexibility to teach remotely for a short time.

Baker’s decision is rooted in a strong belief that last year’s remote learning was disastrous. Last year, teachers’ unions pressured the administration and districts to continue remote learning. Many districts spent most of the year in a hybrid model, and some spent months fully remote.

There were reasons to use these models. For much of the year, state-imposed social distancing requirements made it almost impossible to fit all students in classrooms or buses. Some classrooms did not have good ventilation, and there were logistical concerns about where students could safely remove masks for meals. With vaccines not widely available until the spring, many teachers and students feared returning.

But in many ways, the result was devastating. Standardized test scores dropped. Doctors and public health experts warned of a mental health crisis among students. Nationally, rates of attempted suicide increased for adolescents, which experts attributed to pandemic-related crises like the death of caregivers, but also the loss of social supports like a stable school routine. A February 2021 poll found that Massachusetts high schoolers far prefer to be learning in-person, while a majority of parents in Massachusetts last March wanted schools to focus on bringing more students back. Many parents were forced to leave jobs to care for their children.

The Herald News reported Wednesday that experts are still seeing upticks in pediatric depression and anxiety. Younger children have increased separation anxiety, teenagers are getting into more fights, and many students are demonstrating behavioral problems. “It’s like they’ve forgotten how to be in school,” one teacher was quoted as saying.

We’ve said for quite awhile since the beginning of the school year it was critically important for kids to be in school for a number of reasons,” Baker said Monday. “Some has to do with their educational development, a lot has to do with social development, human development, and especially for older kids their mental health status generally.”

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The Baker administration does not appear to be distinguishing between closures of a few days and the months-long remote learning of last year, and the debate has devolved into the predictable dispute between unions and the Republican governor.

Perhaps there is also some element of the boy who cried wolf. Unions pushed so hard for lengthy remote learning last year, with some troubling consequences, that this year, despite many legitimate reasons, schools are seeking a short period of remote learning and the governor is no longer willing to listen.