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Biden plan to reopen schools ‘promising,’ but Massachusetts advocates worry timeline is ‘very unlikely’

Boston Herald logo Boston Herald 1/23/2021 Lisa Kashinsky, Sean Philip Cotter
a woman holding a sign: BOSTON MA. OCTOBER 28: Erica Haydock with her daughter Caroline,6, a K2 student at the Eliot School joins a group of parents and their children as they demonstrate outside Boston City Hall calling for the reopening of public schools on October 28, 2020 in Boston, MA. ( Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald) © Provided by Boston Herald BOSTON MA. OCTOBER 28: Erica Haydock with her daughter Caroline,6, a K2 student at the Eliot School joins a group of parents and their children as they demonstrate outside Boston City Hall calling for the reopening of public schools on October 28, 2020 in Boston, MA. ( Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

President Biden’s push to increase coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment in schools is bringing new hope to pandemic-weary Massachusetts educators, but some teachers and advocates say his pledge to reopen the majority of K-8 schools in less than 100 days is “very unlikely” to succeed.

“I want to be able to imagine it,” Ruby Reyes of the Boston Education Justice Alliance told the Herald. “But I just can’t.”

Boston currently has just a few hundred of its highest-need students in schools. The public school district announced plans to bring thousands more high-needs students back in February, and intends to phase in students from elementary to high school throughout March.

Even at limited capacity, “we’re still having late buses, there’s still COVID cases popping up,” Reyes said.

Adding the district’s 30,000-plus K-8 students into the equation just “seems very far off,” she said. “I just can’t even imagine what it would look like.”

Biden signed several executive actions on his first full day in office aimed at strengthening the federal response to the pandemic and getting the majority of K-8 schools open by the end of April.

One executive order directs the departments of education and health and human services to provide more guidance for schools and child care centers to reopen safely, and sets up a clearinghouse so schools and higher-education institutions can share best practices. Others increase COVID-19 testing in schools, enhance coronavirus data collection and offer reimbursements for emergency supplies including personal protective equipment through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Biden’s also calling for $130 billion in federal funding for schools.

“We can do it,” Biden vowed in a speech earlier this month, “If we give school districts, communities and states the clear guidance they need as well as the resources they will need that they cannot afford right now because of the economic crisis we are in.”

Biden’s actions so far are “very promising and in line with much of what we have been advocating for since last spring,” Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said in a statement.

But even with supports she said were lacking under the Trump administration, Tang added, “carelessly rushing to reopen when we finally have the opportunity to get this done right, without first implementing what we have learned from science and experts, would be a mistake and further delay reopening efforts.”

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy expressed hope that with more testing and vaccines “it will be possible to open more schools to more students within the next 100 days.”

“However, it is very unlikely that most schools will be open to all students in that time,” she said in a statement. “They won’t even have started vaccinating children in that period, so children will still be vulnerable to both getting the disease and spreading it.”

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration “maintains that in-person learning models are critical to students’ mental health and academic development” and will work with the Biden administration to get more students back in classrooms, Executive Office of Education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn said.

More vaccines and surveillance testing — like the pooled testing program Baker launched — are “what’s going to get us back in the buildings full-time,” American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said.

Biden’s plans could help some fully remote districts return to a hybrid model, Kontos said. But as districts work to bring more students back, she cautioned that a return to fully in-person learning may not come until September.

“Not everybody can go back this year,” Kontos said. “It depends on the district.”

Many of the state’s largest school districts, often those in lower-income municipalities hard hit by the pandemic, are largely remote. With cases still high in Brockton, the school committee recently voted to delay in-person learning until February.

Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan said Biden’s plans for combating COVID-19 are “really promising.” But he worries the timeline for Biden’s education plan is “aggressive.”

“We need to make sure that it’s done in a safe way for the students but also teachers and staff,” said Sullivan, who chairs the school committee. “I like to hear what the president is thinking right now. But again, is it going to be rolled out to meet that deadline? I don’t know.”

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