A Cambridge Public Schools in-person class, as seen in a district video from Dec. 21.

The December death of school district staff member James “Jimmy” Ravanis moved the risk of Covid-19 transmission from an abstraction to reality for some this week, adding weight to a debate around in-person classes versus remote learning.

After Tuesday’s meeting of the School Committee opened with members mourning Ravanis, the debate moved to the meeting’s central issue – whether to shift focus in the metrics used to determine if in-person classes are safe and use an approach advocated in a “Path to Zero” report. Instead of relying on three metrics that measure levels of Covid-19 in Cambridge or Greater Boston, it looks at levels of in-school transmission of Covid-19 to evaluate whether to close a classroom or school building and move to remote learning. It was developed by Danielle Allen, a Harvard professor and director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and a district Covid-19 task force member, and cowritten by local experts in public health, ethics and public policy.

The committee adopted the new approach and Superintendent Kenneth Salim notified the school community Wednesday that students who attended in-person classes in the fall will return Monday. 

But it is not certain how the overall community will respond with residents holding widely different viewpoints on the risk of in-school transmission. During the first semester, which ran Oct. 13 through Dec. 11, there were 50 confirmed Covid-19 cases among in-person staff and students – 34 staff and 16 students – and six confirmed cases of in-school transmission.

Questions about Ravanis

Ravanis

Ravanis, who died Dec. 28, was lauded at the meeting as a Cambridge native who devoted significant time and energy to the community over a 35-year career. A resolution drawn up by member Fred Fantini on behalf of the committee highlighted his “strong work ethic,” “wonderful quick wit and humor” and said he would be remembered as a “wonderful and influential mentor to many.” On Monday, the City Council honored Ravanis as well.

A GoFundMe account has been set up on behalf of the family.

While expressing the sense of loss felt by the community for Ravanis, Salim did not have the information many people hoped for.

“I know that there have been lots of questions around and about how Jimmy got sick,” Salim said. “I wish I had clear answers to provide, but unfortunately, I do not.”

Salim said that there is no definitive information on how Ravanis was infected, and it isn’t known if he was exposed while working inside a school building. “What we are doing is reviewing all of our safety protocols in partnership with union leadership and making sure everyone is taking the safety measures – masking, frequent hand washing and distancing – that we know are critically important to preventing the spread of the virus,” Salim said.

The uncertainty felt by many in the community regarding in-person classes will be apparent when families and educators are asked to select in-person or remote learning.

District staff will be notified Friday if leave or remote teaching accommodations have been granted. A total of 387 requests out of an estimated 1,000 staff members had been submitted as of Wednesday.

The district will send an enrollment form to families on Friday to choose either in-person or remote learning. The form is due on Jan. 15, and families will be notified of enrollment status on Jan. 25.

Divided community

The district and committee decision was made after the public offered a range of reactions to the proposal.

Approximately 100 people signed up to speak during public comment, prompting Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui to reduce the allotted time for each speaker from to two minutes from the standard three; even so, public comment lasted more than three hours.

Many speakers cited issues with remote learning, including students’ lack of engagement in remote learning, the detrimental effects of social isolation on the mental health of caregivers and students, and the strain of balancing work obligations with students’ needs during the day.

A majority supported the move to the Paths to Zero approach as the best way to provide an academic education, social opportunities, and services to high-needs students, as long as a low- to zero-transmission rate is maintained inside the schools. 

Some commenters expressed concerns, including reservations on relying on voluntary instead of mandatory testing of educators to provide accurate data on potential in-school transmission; the proposed testing of students; balancing the risks and benefits of students versus that of educators and staff; and the move to a new approach as Covid-19 cases continue to rise. Thursday saw 63 new cases reported

Others urged patience, advocating that in-person classes be limited until a majority of educators can be vaccinated.

Speakers and committee members acknowledged that public comment may not represent all voices in the community, considering barriers that might include language, time or culture.

In-person learning expansion

While discussion Tuesday was focused on resuming and potentially expanding offering in-person classes, Salim noted that many families will continue with remote learning, and the quality of both programs must be equitable.

Initial plans for extending in-person learning to additional elementary school students, as well as upper and high school students, has a proposed start date of Feb. 8. 

The plans will be discussed in greater detail at the School Committee’s Curriculum & Achievement Subcommittee meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.

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