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BPS parents push for COVID safety protocols

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
BPS parents push for  COVID safety protocols
Boston Education Justice Alliance co-Director Suleika Soto addresses news mediaoutside the Orchard Gardens K-8 school. BANNER PHOTO

When students returned to Boston Public Schools last Thursday, many parents were focused on buses cutting through traffic to get their children to school and back home in a timely matter.

Administrators in the system are beginning a year in which transportation worries are eclipsed by even larger concerns over a state intervention pressing BPS to improve student performance on standardized tests and comply with state mandates on special education.

And a parent group called Families for COVID Safety are posing lingering questions on what measures the district will undertake to protect students, teachers and school staff against COVID outbreaks. Masks are no longer required in BPS schools, yet only a quarter of the district’s building have HVAC systems, a situation, some parents say, that could lead to an increase in COVID cases.

“Even the hospitals and other places require you to wear a mask, despite having good ventilation,” said Soraya Harley, speaking to reporters outside the Orchard Garden’s K-8 school. “We are lucky to have central HVAC at Orchard Gardens, and students and staff were doing all they could, but we still had a lot of infections — 304, to be exact.”

The Families for COVID Safety coalition is calling on the school department to institute universal masking when wastewater testing shows an increase in infections and an opt-out pool testing program similar to what the district used last year. The group is also calling on the district to publish clear benchmarks for when it will institute increased safety measures such as masking.

“If the situation is bad at Orchard Gardens, imagine how bad it is at the three-quarter of schools without HVAC systems,” said Boston Education Justice Alliance co-Director Suleika Soto.

Soto said that more than 40% of Boston children aged 5 to 7 still have not received their first COVID vaccination.

“There was a missed opportunity to hold vaccination clinics during every re-opening event at every school,” she added.

Last year, BPS officials maintained a mask mandate whose end date would be tied to COVID infection rates in Boston dropping below 10 per 100,000. The district dropped that mandate in June, with just 10 days left in the school year, with cases at 27.1 per 100,000.

Questioned by the Banner, a BPS spokesman would not cite a specific threshold for masks being reinstituted in schools.

“BPS will continue to follow COVID-19 guidance from the Boston Public Health Commission, and we remain committed to making data-driven decisions and adjusting policies in response to any changes in the status of the pandemic,” the spokesman said in a statement emailed to the Banner.

The district’s preparations for this school year appear more advanced than they were last year. The district has placed air purifiers in all classrooms, cafeterias and common areas and provides free masks and rapid antigen tests for students who want them.

In the week ending Sept. 3, the most recent for which the state supplies data, the city of Boston had a positive test rate of 6.23%. But in the last two years, infection rates have been lower in the summer, when people are more likely to congregate outdoors than indoors, and schools are not in session.

Orchard Gardens parents say they fear the lack of masking and the reduced testing could lead to a surge similar to what they experienced last year, when the school suffered through its outbreak.

Orchard Gardens parent Yrmaris Matias, a member of the school’s parent council, said she and her daughter were both infected with COVID in the last school year.

“Removing the mask mandate is affecting our kids’ safety, our elders and, of course, the safety of our teachers and the rest of the school’s staff,” she said.

boston public schools, COVID in Boston, Masking in Boston schools