Cambridge Public Schools have switched to a remote learning model since March 13. (Photo: Alex Bowers)

The School Committee held a virtual public double feature Tuesday via video conference: a Covid-19 preparedness presentation by Superintendent Kenneth Salim, and a workshop that resumes public discussion of the district’s $213.7 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year, preempted by the closing of many city and school services.

Committee members praised district staff for adapting to the closing of city and school services, while expressing concern over how to ensure all students and families get education and support services equitably.

Cambridge Public Schools had effectively a single day, March 13, to close down buildings and operations supporting 7,000 students and 1,500 employees and begin the shift to virtual and remote operations demanded by a coronavirus outbreak.

District staff distributed Chromebooks – normally restricted to school use – to students in grades 3 through 8, following up with home delivery of equipment the following week, Salim said. To ensure all students could access their virtual classrooms, the district provided 136 hotspots with instructions in multiple languages to families who need Internet access.

The district has ordered 600 additional Chromebooks to enable participate in remote learning by students in junior kindergarten through Grade 2 who do not have their own devices, Salim said. Due to widespread demand, the delivery date is not yet confirmed.

The district’s Information, Communication, Technology Services department launched a virtual help desk, set up tech office hours and a walk-in clinic in the carpentry bay off Felton Street so families can bring equipment for help or replacement.

Several members had questions regarding district outreach. Member Ayesha Wilson asked how many students have not been contacted and may not be accessing services.

“The question of students that we haven’t heard from is a critical one,” Salim said, adding that in addition to outreach by educators and family liaisons, the district may use its Aspen student information system to track participation and ask students to reach out to their peers.

Member Rachel Weinstein asked how the district is communicating with families who may need translation services.

Technology instructions, reminders and robocalls are translated, though daily messages are not, Salim said. He pointed out that family liaisons and community management liaisons are communicating with families, and that the district is scaling up in-house translation services and implementing a language line on which a third party can translate in real time.

Guidance for faculty in a wholly new teaching environment was raised by member Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal, who said most teachers were adapting and engaging with students, but some lagged.

“We need to help everyone in our community understand what a challenging environment we’re in,” Salim said. “Everyone is stressed at every level … many of our educators have young children themselves. In the vast majority of cases, people are trying the best that they can.”

The district is working with the state, union leadership and the district’s learning team, led by deputy superintendent Carolyn Turk, to develop guidelines for the shift to a virtual environment, Salim said.