Visiting an elementary school in South Boston on Tuesday, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona met with district and school leaders to discuss the challenges and successes of bringing students back for in-person learning amid the pandemic.
“This was the hardest year to be a leader. It really was. I share that sentiment, trying to reopen schools in Connecticut and just the variables changing all the time,” said Cardona, who previously served as education commissioner in Connecticut. “We want to balance safety and risk of not being in school for our students.”
Cardona spoke Tuesday during a roundtable at Tynan Elementary School, where he met with Boston’s Acting Mayor Kim Janey, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, school principal Leslie Gant, and other educators and staff members.
He asked the leaders and staff members how they had managed the transition back to hybrid in-person learning and the upcoming plans to bring elementary school students back for full-time, in-person learning. The changes take time, many of the educators at the roundtable said, and they take the cooperation of the whole school community.
One of the biggest challenges has been simply convincing families, some of whom don’t fully trust the school system, that sending their children back for in-person learning is safe, said Gant.
“We had to convince families it was safe,” she said. Of the school’s 239 families, 182 have opted to return for full-time, in-person learning next month.
Leaders also spoke about the opportunity not only to bring students back to school but to reshape the way education serves the community — an effort to fix inequalities that have long persisted in public education and in Boston’s schools.
“It is important that we as we come out of this that our focus is not to go back to normal, not to go back to pre-March 2020, but to make sure that we stay laser-like focused on dealing with those inequities,” Janey said, “and sometimes those are hard decisions that have to be made.”
The visit to Boston comes as President Joe Biden races to meet his goal to open the majority of elementary and middle schools for full-time, in-person learning within his first hundred days in office. To locals, Boston may seem like a curious choice, given that it’s delaying a state mandate to bring students back to a more normal school schedule and setting until later this month.
But, as big cities go, Boston’s experience getting students back in schools, while frustrating to some parents, has remained relatively low-drama. In San Francisco, the city had to sue the school board to re-open schools and, in Chicago, teachers nearly went on strike over re-opening plans.
In Boston, a small number of high needs students have been able to study inside classrooms since November. The district has added new groups of students over the months, including those with disabilities, students learning English, and homeless students. Then, in March, the district started bringing back additional students for two days a week, starting with younger grades.
The state directive to bring elementary school students back to in-person school five days a week by April sent Boston and other districts scrambling. Boston received special permission from the state to delay that move until April 26, saying it needed more time to prepare buildings and communicate with families. Middle school students in Boston will also begin attending full-time in-person classes then.
The state has not set a date for high school students to resume full-time school in physical classrooms.
A full 59 percent of families say they want their children to go back to school in person, according to Xavier Andrews, director of communications for Boston Public Schools. That’s a significant increase over the 51 percent who requested hybrid learning in the fall, when that was the only in-person option.
In August, the preference for in-person learning was much higher among white families, 73 percent of whom chose in-person learning compared to 46 percent of Black and 45 percent of Latino families. Boston hasn’t released a breakdown by race and ethnicity for recent choices.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Felicia Gans can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.