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School starts next week. Are we ready?

Parents, staff raise concerns about ventilation systems, Delta variant

Avery Bleichfeld

With lingering concerns over air filtration, mask use, social distancing and testing and tracking, Boston Public Schools (BPS) parents and staff are still trying to get their feet underneath them and understand what measures are in place to keep students safe from the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom as kids prepare to return to school in person.

“I am feeling reluctant, I am feeling afraid, just because we’ve been hearing lately that the cases that have been coming up lately are breakthrough cases and are in children under 12,” said Suleika Soto, a BPS parent and parent organizer for the Boston Education Justice Alliance (BEJA).

In BPS, first graders through high school seniors are due back in classrooms Sept. 9; pre-k and kindergarten students are set to return Sept. 13. Shadowing all the district’s preparations for their return is Aug. 16 guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) prohibiting virtual learning in districts across the state with exceptions only for some health-related issues.

“I think [prohibiting remote learning is] a bad idea because parents should have options, especially for children who have not been able to get vaccinated, and even for the ones that have, just because of the breakthrough cases and the cases going up in children,” Soto said.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), said that it is good students are coming back in person, but that the district needs to clarify its expectation for families and staff before students return.

“That’s been our goal for a long time, to bring as many students back in-person as possible …, but the obvious other major concern is around safety,” Tang said. “I do think there’s a lot of anxiety right now around what the safety measures are going to look like this fall, particularly with the increased prevalence of the Delta variant.”

One challenge the district is working to address: air filtration and ventilation in school buildings.

The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) has been working with the district on the issue. Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, MassCOSH’s executive director, said that of the approximately 130 schools in the district, only 38 had central heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Of those existing systems, some were so old they could not accept MERV-13 filters, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends as one step to help protect against COVID-19.

As part of her five-point plan for addressing the spread of the Delta variant in Boston, acting Mayor Kim Janey committed $30 million to improve HVAC systems in public schools. According to a press release the HVAC installations and upgrades will be performed throughout the coming school year.

The money, which BPS director of communications Xavier Andrews said comes from the federal CARES Act and the district’s operating budget, will go towards new air conditioning in schools without HVAC systems as well as maintenance on existing HVAC systems and purchasing other air purification tools.

In a BPS back to school meeting held Aug. 24, Samuel DePina, the BPS deputy superintendent of operations, said that they will replace existing HVAC filters in BPS with MERV-13 filters “on the regular replacement cycle of those systems.”

For now, the district installed air purifiers in classrooms last year and is currently working on replacing those filters, a task that must be done every six months. At the Aug. 24 meeting, DePina said that BPS had replaced 3,242 purifier filters in 98 schools.

Questions also exist around the district’s masking policy. In July, Janey announced all students and staff in BPS will be required to wear face masks at school. The city-wide policy was bolstered by statewide guidance from DESE, announced Aug. 25, that said all staff and students in schools would be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, until Oct. 1.

But concerns remain about what precautions will be taken in instances such as mealtimes when students will have to remove masks. Sugerman-Brozan, who is also a BPS parent, said she has concerns about maintaining protection in a crowded cafeteria, especially as the district moves into a school year where they have said they are recommending but not requiring the three feet of social distancing that the Centers for Disease Control encourage for schools.

“My son goes to a school with 2,500 kids; there’s upwards of 800 kids in the lunchroom,” Sugerman-Brozan said. “They all take their masks off and even if they’re three feet apart, any work that we’ve done to ensure that we’re preventing spread is gone in those 15 minutes.”

At the Aug. 24 meeting, DePina said that before the pandemic, some schools allowed students to eat in classrooms, a policy that continued last year to allow students to spread out more. He said that as students return for the fall semester, some schools will still have students in classrooms while others will spread students out in cafeterias as much as possible.

“We’re going to encourage schools to be creative and do a model that’s best for them that can require social distancing and monitor where students are assigned in seating,” DePina said.

Additionally, the statewide mask guidance includes an exception for mask breaks. Andrews said the district is working with public health groups and DESE to finalize its guidance on what mask breaks will look like for BPS. Representatives from DESE could not be reached for comment regarding what mask breaks might like under the statewide guidance.

BPS will continue testing for COVID-19 in the fall, with pool testing. Samples from groups of students will be tested together, if the pool test comes back positive, the lab will run tests on individual samples from all the students, which will be taken at the time of the first COVID test.

The state has said it is no longer plans to track positive cases, as it did previously, but BPS will continue to do so. School leaders will receive information about positive cases to share with their school communities. Positive cases will also be updated on the BPS COVID-19 reporting dashboard.

Students who must isolate after a positive test will be given live access to class materials and access to a tutor but will not receive virtual instruction with their classmates under the statewide ban on remote learning from DESE. Andrews said details would be shared early September regarding who will provide tutoring and how students will access it.

Close contacts who are identified during BPS’s contact tracing will not be required to quarantine if they are asymptomatic. Instead, they will be allowed to participate in a test-and-stay program in which they will be tested daily, using a rapid test, for five days, according to BPS Senior Director of Health Services Djenny Lobo Lopes.

“This testing will allow for students not to miss any class time,” Lobo Lopes said.

The testing program is opt-in. At the Aug. 24 meeting, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said they can’t force families to participate, but highly encouraged it.

“The safest way we can keep our entire community safe is to get vaccinated — all of us, parents and family members and children who are over the age of 12 — and then the second is masking and the third is doing our surveillance COVID testing and removing members from our community who are testing COVID positive,” Cassellius said.

At a parent council meeting at the New Mission pilot high school, District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said he’d prefer an opt-out system.

“I’m worried about the opt-in requirement for pool testing. I wish it were op-out,” he said.

Tang said that the BTU has been in negotiations with BPS last week and this week to finalize and codify plans about the district’s approach to COVID-19 safety in schools. A priority for her is making multiple backup plans to account for potential shifts in the pandemic landscape or changing guidance from the state.

“There’s a lot of frustration because plans can be made, but then if they’re undone because of decisions that DESE makes, then we have to start over,” Tang said. “That’s what we saw last year; we had to start over like four different times.”

She said she wants an agreement finalized this week to ease the stress members of the community are feeling.

“Our proposals for the fall reopening have all been vetted by our school nurses and our environmental experts, and so we feel confident that what we’re asking for will help to mitigate the risks as much as possible and really hope that we can get an agreement by the end of this week, honestly, so that everyone can have a little less anxiety about a lot of the unknowns right now and what to expect,” Tang said.

Ruby Reyes, director of BEJA, said she thinks the district should be preparing for another potential switch to remote learning. As part of that, she said she thinks the district should be working to collect and catalog resources that teachers developed over the past year and a half of remote or hybrid learning so they can be used in case the district returns to virtual instruction.

That such moves are not, to her knowledge, occurring is part of a bigger issue she said she sees of lessons learned during the pandemic not sticking.

“Some of the stuff that got put in place during the pandemic is almost like what steps forward we took, and the progress we made, is kind of being thrown out the window,” Reyes said.

Soto said she thinks the district should not give up on some of the practices it learned and developed.

“Last year everyone had to adjust really quickly and we were able to do that, to adjust to the technology … but they were able to learn with remote learning, hybrid learning — so, many things that are difficult but we were able to learn from it,” Soto said. “So, I think that, picking up some of those best practices and bringing it into this year would really, really help.”