A sensible plan for reopening Boston schools

Two weeks in-person followed by two weeks home

NOW THAT THE Boston Public Schools have announced a delayed reopening of schools, let us examine a way for students to reintegrate into their schools with an emphasis on what the students need rather than what the adults want.

Superintendent Cassellius has proposed a plan she calls hopscotch. Some students would come into schools on Mondays and Tuesdays, while all the others stay home. Others would come in on Thursdays and Fridays. “Deep cleanings” would occur on Wednesdays and over weekends. All the while teachers are asked to teach both the in person and home students simultaneously. Such simultaneous teaching is as impractical as it is unprecedented.

On paper hopscotch may seem like a good split, but as a teacher and a parent I find that there would be too much change which would rob students of the ability to work deeply on a topic. Instead, I propose we borrow from the vocational-technical school model of two weeks focused on academics and two weeks on voc/tech.

I propose that half the students go to school for two weeks, the other half stay home.  For the in-person half, teachers can introduce a new unit, practice it for mastery, and give an exam all within a fortnight. When the two weeks are up, the teachers send students home with independent projects to be completed asynchronously. This way we eliminate the fallacy of simultaneously teaching well two vastly different audiences, as the hopscotch plan would have us do.

Obviously having fewer students in the school at any one time would slow down the transmission of COVID-19. The buses traveling to and from school would not be packed. Classrooms would have half the number of seats so that students would sit further apart. Lunch would need a little reworking so that kids would not have to line up and crowd the counter. All of the above is manageable, needing only some creative engineering.

Students would also get more individualized attention in a class of 15 instead of 30.  After months of distance learning, students and teachers will need the chance to catch up, find deficits, and move ahead.  After a day of working together (albeit six feet apart), teachers would give students homework until they’d reunite in the school. For high school students, this schedule will prepare them for how college operates. For the younger grades, this schedule will allow them to form and keep the all important social bonds crucial for their adult lives.

The social-emotional welfare of the students is just as important as their academic success.  During their isolation, special education students and English Language Learners will have suffered more than their general education counterparts. Mental health issues are no laughing matter. Not only do schools have to address the known pre-existing mental health conditions of their students, they’ll also have to assume that isolation and fear will have had a major – and likely unseen – impact upon the well-being of all students.  Returning to schools in smaller groups will make it easier for counselors to address the students’ needs.

Getting students together – even if it is only half at a time – will bring a sense of normalcy to their adolescence. Better social-emotional adjustment will lead to better school experiences and, ultimately, to better life experiences as adults.

The sooner we can get all students together the better. Families have been and will continue to be burdened by remote learning. We all want to return to the pre-COVID days, but with no vaccine in the near future it is up to us to restructure education to facilitate safe learning, a reopened economy, a sense of community for all of Boston’s students.

The highest priority has to be preparing our century old school buildings for the “new norm.”  Boston has neglected routine maintenance and repairs for generations. It may be unfair that the recently arrived Dr. Brenda Cassellius has to deal with this homemade mess, but here we are. Mayor Marty Walsh’s billion dollar BuildBPS was barely sufficient for our needs pre-COVID, now we need to multiply those billions and expedite the repairs.

Sadly we once again squandered a golden opportunity.  School buildings have been closed since mid March.  By May we knew buildings would not open until at least September.  Now reopening will be October at the earliest.  What has the BPS done to make schools more COVID prepared? Precious little. Some windows have been replaced but that’s about it. More, much more, needs to be done.

We need massive overhauls of nearly 100 school buildings.  Our HVAC/HEPA filtration systems were inadequate before the pandemic and are hopelessly out of date today.  Our classrooms by and large are cramped, dirty, and poorly stocked.  In any given year the requests of Boston’s teachers for donations on Donors Choose surpass $1 million. The city can no longer afford to skimp on basic classroom materials.

In order to reopen, the BPS will need to supply ample personal protective equipment, masks, sanitizer, touchless faucets, just to name a few.  As recently as last year the Boston Globe ran a scathing expose on the horrific state of student bathrooms.  Little has improved in the past six months. The lack of urgency from the adults in charge borders on criminal negligence.

All of these repairs will take time and money.  We are wasting the time we do have, so starting now is imperative. As for the extra money needed, if taxes have to be raised, so be it.  We either are “all in it together” or we are not.  he politicians’ favorite excuse of “we just don’t have the money” is as insufficient as it is insincere.  We have to open the schools safely if we are to bring down the state’s unemployment rate.  In order to safely open the schools, a massive renovation effort needs to happen now.

Perhaps the BPS can take a page out of the charter school playbook. New Market Tax Credits could help fuel massive building projects. With our mayor having been a state legislator for years, we should be able to pass a home rule petition allowing Boston to tax the colleges, hospitals, and museums at say 10 percent of what their property tax would be. This influx of funds would not only improve our school buildings, but would also employ hundreds of trade professionals. Just think of the win-win scenario for the students of Madison Park.

Meet the Author

Michael J. Maguire

Vice president, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts
The sooner we remake our schools for the demands of the pandemic era, the sooner we can get half – and then all – our students back to in-person instruction. Our students are long owed modern facilities. Sadly, we are all paying the price of neglect.  he price will only get larger the longer we wait.

Michael J. Maguire is a Boston Public School teacher and parent. He serves on the board of the Boston Teachers Union.  The views expressed here are his own.