Sunday, April 21, 2024

Superintendent Kenneth Salim, seen at a meeting in January. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

All grades will be fully remote in reopened Cambridge Public Schools until Oct. 13, superintendent Kenneth Salim said Wednesday. “We can’t meet the requirements to keep people safe,” he said, according to a person familiar with the conversation.

The announcement – an acknowledgment the district can’t get all the promised safety measures in place by the time schools open, according to Salim – came during negotiations between the district and the staff union.

Salim’s decision is another quick pivot in this summer of planning for fall schooling. It changes the plan approved by the School Committee last week, which was itself several iterations of proposed plans.

Salim and “members of his cabinet who were in the room at the time” said his recounted comment was inaccurate, and the delay is primarily about staffing, said district spokeswoman Lyndsay Pinkus Brown. In the official language of the district, “This delayed start for in-person (at school) learning will provide more time to address the complex staffing and scheduling decisions for in-person learning, necessary planning and training, as well as the contingencies outlined in the reopening plan.”

The decision against in-school learning came as many staff members pushed back on the hybrid model that had some students and teachers, mostly in junior kindergarten through third grade, in school, with the vast majority of students using online learning to start the school year. At the same time, some vocal families have urged that all students should have at least part-time access to in-school learning. 

The Cambridge Education Association sent an open letter Monday to the School Committee demanding that the academic year begin with remote-only classes, saying the union was “deeply distressed” by the committee’s Aug. 6 vote to adopt a limited “hybrid” school reopening plan. The concern of the more than 400 educators who signed the letter was that the safety of staff and students couldn’t be adequately guaranteed.

The letter followed a July statement from the CEA’s Educators of Color Coalition saying that “anything other than a fully remote start to the school year is unacceptable” because of the disproportional impact Covid-19 has had on “Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities” in Cambridge and beyond.

Coalition members and supporters have referred to illnesses and deaths among Cambridge public school families of color in virtual meetings this summer.

The communications set the stage for the committee’s closed-door discussions this week of collective bargaining goals for contracts with teachers and administrators (units A and B), clerks (Unit C), substitute teachers (Unit D) and paraprofessionals (Unit E).

Like Massachusetts’s other 288 school districts, Cambridge has been struggling with deciding the best way to educate its students this fall under the shadow of Covid-19. There have been dozens of virtual planning meetings this summer, including staff working groups, School Committee meetings, subcommittee meetings and town halls, and open information meetings with the superintendent, Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School principal Damon Smith and other key staff.

In-person urged by state

Gov. Charlie Baker and the state’s education department has made it clear that they prefer in-person learning for most schools, though districts were asked to prepare three plans: fully remote, fully in-person and a hybrid model. Preliminary plans were due July 31 and final plans on Aug. 18. Six days earlier, Baker released a color-coded map showing that 318 of the communities were in a position where he expected to see kids going back to school. Cambridge was one of them.

At the same time, the two main teachers unions in the state, the Massachusetts Teachers Association and American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, are positioned against going back into the school buildings because of their concern over health and safety concerns. In early August, Somerville announced it would be fully remote for the start of fall. They were followed by some large cities with significant immigration communities hit hardest by Covid-19, including Chelsea and Revere. 

In the plan approved for submission for Cambridge, the hybrid model was prioritized. Remote learning was set to begin for all students Sept. 16, with students allowed into school starting Sept. 21. The committee and City Council held a roundtable Aug. 11 to discuss the plan, and while councillors voiced some concerns and reservations, the plan was not overtly challenged.

The School Committee passed its model with conditional language that the safety of the staff and students needed to be assured, including: an approved Covid-19 testing plan; use of classrooms only if they meet the requirements in an independent analysis of building spaces; and a social-emotional learning, mental and behavioral health plan for all students.

This post was updated to add a denial of the superintendent’s recounted comment and a statement from the district. The headline was shortened.