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With Zoom Cameras Largely Off, Cambridge Public Schools Navigate Remote Learning

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Laurie A. Ferhani, a middle school science teacher at the Amigos School in Cambridge, has completely adapted her curriculum to an online format, using interactive online simulations to replace labs.

Due to the reduced class time remote learning provides, however, her students are only learning a third of what they would have in a typical year, Ferhani said.

“Where I am now, in January, I probably would have been in November," she said.

While all Cambridge Public School students began the year with remote learning from home, on Oct. 13, certain eligible students began attending in-person classes, including students enrolled in pre-K through first grade, certain second and third graders, and students in special education programs.

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CPS followed three metrics in the fall to determine if schools could continue with in-person learning: the seven-day average of daily new cases in Cambridge, the Covid-19 test positivity rate in Cambridge, and the number of Covid-19 particles in sewage wastewater in the greater Boston area. If two of the metrics surpassed a certain threshold, schools shifted to remote learning until these metrics remained below their thresholds for a week.

CPS shifted to remote learning for all students on Dec. 10 after two metrics surpassed their thresholds. In-person learning for previously eligible students resumed on Jan. 11.

In response to parents’ complaints about the efficacy of online learning, the Cambridge School Committee passed two motions in a special meeting on Dec. 22, including reducing required social distancing measures and quarantine periods.

Eric Lind, a psychologist and parent to two daughters enrolled in CPS, was one of many parents who spoke during the meeting's public comment period about the mental distress remote learning caused for students.

“It was heartbreaking to see our oldest daughter — who used to be excited for school, would get up in the morning, would go early to see her friends and to visit her teachers — become sullen, bitter, withdrawn, and really disconnected from peers,” he said. “Our youngest daughter, a second grader, was fortunate enough to be able to go back to school and the difference in her mental health between my oldest daughter was telling.”

Cameras Off

Students and educators agreed that remote learning has harmed students’ mental health and exacerbated inequities.

Ferhani said many students turn their cameras off while on Zoom because they feel “embarrassed.”

“You might see one person’s bedroom, and it’s all decked out with anything that you would ever want,” Ferhani said. “And then you see somebody — I had one kid take their class from a closet in their house because there were just so many people, and they didn’t want anyone to see where they were living.”

Robin Harris, the former principal of CPS's Fletcher Maynard Academy and a CPS administrator, shared feedback the district has received from families at a Curriculum and Achievement Sub-Committee Meeting on Jan. 12. From late November through December, CPS hosted nearly 20 sessions with families on remote learning and has surveyed families about their experiences on Zoom.

At the meeting, Harris reported that families of students attending in-person school generally felt safe with the health precautions taken by schools. At the same time, she said many families, especially families of color, said they would not enroll their children in person until the pandemic was better controlled or vaccines became readily available, she said.

Overall, Harris said, families find remote learning “ineffective.” She also said remote learning has taken a toll on students’ wellbeing.

“Students are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and fatigued by remote learning,” Harris said. “Many feel socially isolated and want additional opportunities for youth and teacher interactions.”

At the same meeting, Nuriel Vera-DeGraff, a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, said the remote setting has impaired the quality of his education.

“Class time has been significantly cut,” he said. “One of the biggest downsides is that teachers aren’t really having as much time to connect one-on-one with each student.”

Still, Vera-DeGraff said his teachers have tried to find ways to engage him and his classmates remotely.

“Teachers have gotten insanely creative in ways to connect with their students and have them participate even if it’s not with their cameras on,” he said.

Teachers Demand ‘A Seat at the Table’

Learning during Covid-19 has created challenges not only for students, but for educators too.

As students struggle through Zoom instruction, teachers also find it difficult to meaningfully connect with — and ultimately educate — their students when their Zoom cameras are off.

“I told them, we’re humans, we need to see two eyes, we need to see a smile, we need to see if you understand it,” Ferhani, the CPS middle school teacher, said.

Outside of the classroom, Ferhani and other teachers said they believe the school district has sidelined them from vital discussions about school operations during the public health crisis. They also said the school district has not adequately supported them and addressed their concerns.

Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim meets weekly with school principals. In addition, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said in an interview that the School Committee held two roundtables in the fall with principals, during which they received feedback from teachers. Teachers were also represented in the CPS Covid-19 Taskforce and in various working groups, she said.

In early January, however, the district stoked the ire of many educators when the School Committee proposed an expansion of in-person learning to begin as early as Feb. 8.

Ferhani said she was “upset” about the Feb. 8 expanded in-person plan, particularly with a three foot reduction in distancing requirements and a shift in the district’s metrics for positive cases.

“Right now we kind of feel like sacrificial lambs, where we have a different standard of safety than other workers do,” she said.

Lily Rayman-Read, a history teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, sent an email on Jan. 8 to CPS affiliates in opposition to the proposed in-person expansion plan. Over 300 similar emails followed hers.

“Our needs, our concerns, and our very sound advice, have simply been ignored,” Rayman-Read wrote in the email. “We have begged for a seat at the table countless times, and been denied.”

The Educators of Colors Coalition, part of the Cambridge Educators Association union, stated the school reopening process “has caused harm and trust has been broken” in a Jan. 9 statement.

The Coalition recommended the district “abandon” its Feb. 8 expansion plan, and instead implement a community-created reopening plan centered on racial equity and physical safety.

Siddiqui, who serves as the chair of the Cambridge School Committee, said at the Jan. 19 School Committee meeting that she is “taking to heart” feedback she receives, and that she is “cognizant” of educators’ fears.

‘No Confidence’

Though they agree remote instruction is not comparable to in-person learning, Cambridge families are nonetheless split on whether they want their children to return to the classroom.

About fifty-five percent of eligible students opted for in-person schooling in the fall, Salim said in a December interview. Data compiled by the Cambridge School Committee revealed that while 62 percent of eligible white students elected to learn in-person, only 47 percent of eligible African American students did.

Bernette J. Dawson and Amara E. Donovan, leaders of the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition and CPS parents, believe CPS did not engage “hard-to-reach” families enough and was not upfront about what in-person learning would look like.

People of color are more likely to live in multigenerational housing and have reduced access to healthcare, nutritious foods, and transportation, Donovan said. That inequality coupled with concern over whether policies like mask-wearing would be fairly enforced may explain why Black and Brown families were reluctant to send their children back to school, Donovan said.

Balancing the different interests of stakeholders in the school district’s reopening plans is a daunting task for Siddiqui and Salim. Public comment during School Committee meetings can last for almost three hours.

Salim said “no model is perfect in this context,” and that any plan for hybrid learning will have “trade-offs.”

On Jan. 20, the School Committee approved Salim’s recommendation for schools to delay their in-person expansion plan to March 1, instead of Feb. 8 as initially planned.

The new plan expands in-person learning and coronavirus testing for certain grades. A remote learning option will remain available to all students.

Preliminary data from an enrollment form sent to families revealed that while 57 percent of elementary school families request in-person learning, only 41 percent of upper school and 32 percent of high school families did.

On Friday, the Cambridge Educators Association voted to declare it had “no confidence” in Salim and the Cambridge School Committee. The vote came after the School Committee approved the superintendent’s March 1 reopening plan and one week after Salim announced that he would resign from his post at the end of the academic year, citing family considerations.

Salim and Siddiqui wrote they were “disappointed” by the union’s declaration in a letter sent to CPS affiliates.

“Unfortunately, this is a strategy of division we have seen unions employ in other school districts in Massachusetts during the pandemic,” they wrote. “Despite this action, our goal will continue to be expanding in-person learning opportunities for our scholars, while keeping all of our staff safe.”

Salim and Siddiqui wrote in the letter that the district has invested $5 million into school safety measures and that it remains committed to incorporating educators’ feedback.

“Ultimately, we have to decide what is best for the entire school district - even as we recognize that some people will disagree,” they wrote.

— Staff writer David R. Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidrwshaw.

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