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Parents, students discuss safe return to school

Morgan C. Mullings

Returning to school this month has parents and students across the state contemplating their safety and their schedules. While many Boston Public Schools parents have chosen to participate in a hybrid model, others are staying completely remote until they feel in-person learning is safe enough.

In a virtual meeting with the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance on Sept. 3, several parents, students and teachers discussed what would make them feel safe enough to return to school buildings in the fall.

Jay’dha Rackard is entering seventh grade this fall through remote-only learning at Helen Davis Leadership Academy, but her mother Janina, a teacher at the school, will be teaching in person.

“I think it is cruel and mean to think that students should be in a room at their seats without any physical touch for hours. Not some, but all students need some kind of outlet, releasing energy, whether it’s a gym or recess, or just to have any space to move around,” Jay’dha said.

Her mother got emotional when speaking about the risk of in-person teaching.

“Financially, somebody has to provide,” Janina said, but she is considering sheltering away from her daughter.

Suleika Soto has two children in Boston Public Schools and has chosen the hybrid model for her 12-year-old and 9-year-old kids. When schools first closed, she and her family contracted the virus.

“It was at a time when there was no [widespread] testing. I was told to just stay home and quarantine, you definitely have it. There were really no answers. It was hard to navigate virtual learning while having COVID,” Soto said.

Because she has to return to work, Soto said, “I need childcare. There is really no childcare out there so school’s my next best option. And I know that this is a high risk, but I’m kind of stuck.”

Soto added that she wants schools to require a negative COVID-19 test for anyone entering the building.

In August, BPS’ reopening plan was met with heavy opposition from parents and teachers, especially the Boston Teachers Union, who came up with their own plan in response. On Aug. 12, BTU asked that no one be allowed to return to school buildings until they had all the necessary resources to ensure safety, and that in-person teaching be voluntary.

On Aug. 21, Mayor Martin Walsh announced that the school year would start fully-remote, and hybrid learning will be phased in through October for families who chose it.

“It creates a staggered approach for our students to return to the classroom in a safe and careful way,” the mayor said.

However, there is still no plan for students and teachers who may get sick and have to quarantine.

“If they were to contract the virus from a student, I need to make sure that we’re not tapping into their FMLA or short term disability or sick time or earned time,” said Sasha Jimenez, a parent from Springfield. Her worry is that, because each school has different learning models and levels of safety, students and teachers who travel out of their town to go to school may be in danger.

Two students representing Chelsea High School’s honor society said that switching to remote learning during a pandemic hurt their mental health. Victoria Stutto suggested the school have a designated advocate for students who will listen to them when school reopens and detail their concerns to administrators.

A major issue every attendee brought up was the lack of communication between schools and families.

Kateryn Perez, a student at Framingham High School, said that she and her grandmother are the only two in her family who can speak and understand English — making it difficult for her parents to understand communication from the school about remote learning. Three of her family members also have asthma, so she said they rarely leave the house.

“We couldn’t really ask a lot of questions and we were not being told a lot of things,” she said.

The Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA), the organization that initiated the MEJA, previously met with BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius to express their concerns. According to BEJA Director Ruby Reyes, “[Cassellius] essentially wasn’t really able to answer questions, and basically said to just trust the fact that they would keep our children safe.”

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