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‘Working As One’: Cambridge Responds to School Closures

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UPDATED: May 29, 2020, 8:53 a.m.

Instead of taking his Advanced Placement United States History exam the afternoon of May 15, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School junior Andrew W. Mello went shopping. At noon, he drove to the store and bought groceries, while his neighbor waited in the car.

Mello’s neighbor is at high risk for severe complications from coronavirus and could not enter the store safely, so Mello did the shopping for her. He said he plans to take his exam at a later date.

Mello is just one of many Cambridge students whose day-to-day life has been upended by the public health crisis.

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When the coronavirus pandemic caused many academic institutions to close in mid-March, students were sent home to transition to remote learning. Cambridge Public Schools was no exception.

The district, consisting of 20 schools – a handful of which surround Harvard’s campus – initially announced a “two-week closure” on March 12th, according to Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim.

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Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 then extended that closure through April for all schools in the state. Nearly a month later, he announced that all Massachusetts schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year.

“That move to sort of turn on a dime to shift into a remote learning environment is something that none of us have ever had to contend with,” Salim said. “Even making that kind of shift when you have a year in advance planning is a pretty significant shift. And so, to do that in one fell swoop is a challenge.”

Building a Virtual Classroom

After the district-wide closure announcement, Cambridge Public Schools Chief Information Officer Steven W. Smith said he was in “reactionary mode.” His team had less than 24 hours to supply every student with a Chromebook for the transition to virtual classrooms.

“Majority of students grades three through eight left the schools on that Friday with Chromebooks,” he said. “Nine through 12 already had Chromebooks assigned.”

In the following weeks, about 800 more Chromebooks were ordered for students in kindergarten through second grade.

Additionally, the district procured approximately 400 WiFi hotspots to deliver to households without reliable internet access, and twice a week, the carpentry shop bay of CRLS converts into a walk-in IT help center, serving anywhere from a dozen to 50 students and staff, according to Smith.

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Smith also said students will keep the hotspots and Chromebooks throughout the summer and for as long as virtual learning continues.

During the pandemic, CPS students have had to adapt to changes in and out of the classroom, but many were dismayed that their school year was cut short.

“It wasn’t [until] about the fifth week of the quarantine that CRLS administration came out with a really concrete plan of how our classes are going to work,” senior Sekai T. Carr said.

CRLS Principal Damon Smith wrote in an emailed statement the school sent out communications detailing updated academic expectations each time closures were announced or extended. Additionally, he wrote that a distance learning schedule was shared in the first week of April, which came into effect mid-month.

CRLS, the district’s only comprehensive high school, resumed classes virtually on an abbreviated schedule, with often just one class a day. Many high schoolers said they aren’t learning remotely as much as they were in person.

“As much as we have tried to replicate the experience of school virtually, nothing compares to being in class,” Smith wrote, adding that the school will continue to enhance virtual learning opportunities.

CRLS seniors were also forlorn about spending their last weeks of high school away from their peers, concluding a four-year journey with neither prom nor traditional graduation activities. Carr said he might not even want to attend the virtual graduation ceremony.

“I was kind of like, wow, this is really gonna be how I end my high school experience, which is kind of disappointing,” Eli A. Siegel-Bernstein, another senior at CRLS, said.

Carr’s classmate, Isabelle A. Agee-Jacobson, called the ending “abrupt.”

“Everybody's talking about all these details related to graduation and prom, and there's just this sense around you that helps you say goodbye,” Agee-Jacobson said. “We just don't have that, so I think it's just gonna feel really, really abrupt.”

Smith sympathized with students' disappointment.

“[Graduation] is THE highlight of the year for just about everyone in the school community and I am most saddened that we will not be able to be together,” he wrote. The district is looking for a future date to celebrate seniors in person, Smith wrote.

Still, students said they were looking ahead to their futures after graduation. Some of them have decided to attend college in the fall regardless of whether or not the semester convenes virtually. Others, such as Carr and Siegel-Bernstein, intend to take a gap year.

“No matter what the situation is, I really want to go to Alaska next year and be a salmon fisherman,” Siegel-Bernstein said, after his original gap year plans to teach English in Lebanon were put on hold as a result of the virus.

Civics teacher Kathleen K. FitzGerald coordinates the Enhanced Senior Year program at CRLS. The program typically invites upperclassmen to pursue independent projects, teaching assistantships, and internships.

This semester, more than 80 juniors and seniors signed up. But the pandemic has cut many students’ opportunities short. Some had their internships rescinded, while others personally deemed their still-ongoing jobs unsafe. One student even re-centered their thesis project around COVID-19. Regardless of their situations, students in the program are still preparing final presentations, according to FitzGerald.

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In her civics classroom, FitzGerald said that for years her students have held a poster exhibition for their final projects. But after shifting to remote learning, she decided to replace the posters with virtual speeches, which she found to be very successful and plans to assign again next year.

“I’m excited that this [pandemic] forced me to shift something that had been feeling a little old,” FitzGerald said of the previous poster display. “I’m going to keep this assignment no matter whether we’re back in or not.”

FitzGerald added that schools have served as sanctuaries for students, providing them with social and emotional benefits that have been lost during the pandemic.

“So many students will come to school and feel really safe there and comfortable there,” she said. “The most important thing for us as educators has been really staying connected with students and making sure that they’re okay in terms of mental health.”

Nina C. Nolan, a parent and chair of the Putnam Avenue Family Association, said that the Putnam Avenue Upper School has been proactive in “acknowledging the whole child.” PAUS is sending out wellbeing resources and encouraging creative outlets for students, according to Nolan.

Regardless, CPS parents said their children miss attending school and spending time with friends.

Christina T. Lively whose 10-year-old son attends Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. School said her son recently told her that he hopes Governor Baker opens up the state again so he can have playdates again.

‘Just Do What You Can’

Sending kids home has spotlighted inequities across Cambridge. The gaps in educational attainment by students with varying grades or abilities, especially those in special education programs, have been stark.

One parent — speaking under the condition of anonymity given her line of work — wrote in a statement that school was her childcare equivalent. Navigating virtual education for her children since has been “a rotten time.” As a healthcare worker and single mom, she wrote in a text message that she is unable to supervise her kids at home.

“I felt the stress of implementing a school like structure or routine at home, that still [hasn’t] happened,” she wrote. “[The kids don’t] take it or me seriously.”

“School is a joke,” she added.

Younger students and families with lower technological literacy have especially struggled with online learning. Virginia Cuello said her daughter, who is in middle school at PAUS, has grown frustrated with technology.

“She’ll write everything out, and then she has to type it. She’s not the [fastest] typer,” Cuello said of her daughter. “She feels bad about not being able to finish...I’m there to support her. I tell her, ‘just do what you can.’”

Students in kindergarten through second grade received touchscreen Chromebooks. CPS CIO Smith said that these laptops are ideally more user friendly, but technological literacy still remains a barrier for many students.

One parent, Kathryn K. Carr, said she was thankful she could read English — the sole language many school announcements are delivered in.

Others wished for more accessible programs for students. Nolan said that while some PAUS teachers have offered “office hours,” it is likely that many PAUS students don’t know what that is.

“The teachers are saying that they had office hours...I was like, I never heard of office hours until I got to college,” Nolan said. “And if you’re a middle schooler, you don’t want to go to the office, like why would you show up?”

Some Cambridge parents reacted quickly to the closure, organizing fundraisers to do “emergency patchwork,” according to Jodi B. Sperber, who serves on the board of a parent-run nonprofit dedicated to supporting King Open School.

Family organizations at King Open, MLK School, and PAUS held fundraisers and bought gift cards to local supermarkets for food-insecure families. At the Peabody School, the parent-teacher association gave out grants to their teachers.

However, many parents have had to adjust to new schedules as a result of not only working from home but also having their children at home.

“We have relaxed on the rules about gaming and watching TV,” Shalini Gautam, president of the Peabody School PTA, said. “But I must admit that even for myself, it's like, as this is becoming the new normal and we have sort of adapted, it's time to bring back some guidelines on ourselves and the kids.”

Sperber, who has a son in elementary school, also talked about the difficulties of navigating a new virtual classroom dynamic, particularly with respect to the role of the teacher.

“As a parent, I'm trying to figure out what that line is between letting her still be the primary teacher versus I’m the one that sees him most, so am I now the primary teacher?” she said. “I honestly don’t know how to answer that.”

Parents, however, are still finding ways for their children to socialize and remain connected to the school.

“Anybody who has a birthday, the parents set up a Zoom call so kids are able to get together and celebrate,” Gautam said.

Some students have also played video games together, including Animal Crossing and Minecraft, to keep in touch.

Across Cambridge, many low-income families have relied on school cafeterias to feed their kids five days a week. Once schools closed, these students would have been left food-insecure, according to Cambridge Vice Mayor Alanna M. Mallon.

“A lot of public schools that have a high number of low-income students declined to close for snow days or other emergencies because of the food access,” she said. “For a lot of our students, that’s where the majority of their nutrition comes from — the school cafeteria.”

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Mallon also serves as the K-12 strategic lead for a local food security nonprofit, Food for Free, where she had been planning for an emergency meals program for weeks, should schools close due to the pandemic. Soon after the district announced closures, Food for Free organized eight meal pickup sites around the city. Volunteers signed up to distribute meals prepared by school cafeteria staff.

“[The cafeteria staff] miss the kids,” Mallon added. “They have thrown every ounce of love into these meals that they could over the last 10 weeks.”

This grab-and-go meal program serves two meals a day to 500 kids in the district. Despite shortages, staff hashed together an assorted menu offering halal meals, vegetarian alternatives, and pizza Fridays.

Mallon plans to transition the service into an official initiative of the Department of Human Service Programs and extend meals through the summer such that there is no interruption in meal service once the school year ends.

While the coronavirus pandemic has certainly underscored inequity across the city, “the inequities have always been there,” according to CPS Title I Family Liaison Debbie J. Bonilla.

Title I schools receive federal funding because a high percentage of their students come from low-income backgrounds. As part of her job, Bonilla connects with low-income and homeless families to understand how the district can best support them. During the pandemic, this has become a round-the-clock job.

“What is the need right now for families, and how do I get it out to them?” she asked. “How do we meet families where they're at? There are families that we don't even hear from, how do we make that connection?”

Bonilla also said it is a huge challenge for these families to prioritize education amidst other challenging circumstances. She cited examples of undocumented families who hesitate to reach out to assistance programs that require them to share personal information, as well as families with precarious living situations.

“It’s really hard for them to think of schoolwork and all the stuff that we're talking about,” she said. “Not everybody's going to be able to get on and be involved in this schoolwork for eight hours, six hours, or four hours a day. It's just not going to happen for everybody.”

Bonilla added that it is sometimes difficult to tell which families are in these situations.

“You don't know everything that a family is going through or carrying. Even if they have a roof over their head, there’s so many other things before this pandemic that people were going through,” she said. “And that invisible luggage — you don't always see it, so you just have to remember that we're all going through something.”

Back to the Drawing Board

Claire B. Spinner, CPS Chief Financial Officer, said when her team first started planning the district’s budget for 2020, they had “no inkling” that they would need to take a global pandemic into account. In fact, the budget for the 2021 fiscal year was decided earlier on the same day CPS announced it would close.

“We’re really focused on our continued implementation of our District Plan. We're very focused on how are we aligning what we're doing with the outcomes that we want to see,” she said.

Spinner and her team quickly pivoted, analyzing the effects of district-wide school closure on its budget. Currently, CPS has not laid off any staff members and is continuing regular pay and benefits. They found that even with the additional expenses occurring from bulk purchases, such as the Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots, the district will have a greater end-of-year balance than usual.

This is in part due to large savings in energy and transportation.

“We were already sort of lower than normal on bills because it has been quite a warm winter,” Spinner said. “We ended up saving about three-quarters of a million dollars — about $750,000 — in our transportation costs.”

In a typical year, any leftover balance from CPS’s budget is then reabsorbed by the city. This year, however, Cambridge City Manager Louis A. DePasquale is willing to re-allocate leftover funds into next year’s budget to help mitigate COVID-19 recovery costs, according to Spinner.

Spinner said the future COVID-19-related costs are “mind-boggling to think about” but said there would be expenditures related to increasing health and safety measures in schools, such as additional handwashing facilities.

As the academic year comes to a close and the state of Massachusetts slowly reopens, Cambridge families are thrust into a precarious summer and uncertain fall.

Many Cambridge families rely on summer programming as a seasonal daycare. Parents working essential jobs and those returning to in-person employment cannot care for kids at home. Carr said she is “terrified” for what the summer holds.

“I have to start physically being at my job again, but my kids don’t have any summer school options,” Carr said. “What does that mean for me?”

Both CPS and Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House Association will offer some virtual summer programming for K-12 students, but these students will still be at home — with or without their guardians.

Most PBHA term-time student enrichment programs ended early due to the pandemic. PBHA coordinator Fahedur Fahed ’22 said the organization is interfacing with Superintendent Salim to coordinate virtual offerings for low-income Cambridge K-12 students over the summer.

Fall plans remain undecided, though school officials meet regularly to develop a COVID-19 recovery plan, according to Salim.

Harvard Business School lecturer John J.-H. Kim ’87 co-chairs the Public Education Leadership Project, which partners with urban school districts across the country to develop management strategies. He said he hopes districts develop plans for the upcoming school year by mid-July, likening such plans to application updates.

“When Microsoft used to come out with their Windows 93 or 95 or 98, it would spend years building the new version,” Kim said. “Whereas today, when you look at the apps on your phone, they get updated almost daily.”

He said that schools need to follow the latter model of monitoring and frequently updating their plans — an “innovation, agile approach” for the 2020-2021 academic calendar.

Bonilla, the Title I Coordinator, emphasized the importance of coming together during the pandemic.

“We're no longer my school, my family," Bonilla said. "We are just all of us working as one.”

— Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

— Staff writer Sixiao Yu can be reached at sixiao.yu@thecrimson.com.

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