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.
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.
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.
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.”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.