In-Person Learning, Racial Disparities, and Pandemic Staffing - Rachel for Cambridge

In-Person Learning, Racial Disparities, and Pandemic Staffing

Dear Friends,

Yellow school buses are rolling down our streets again!  We welcomed our youngest scholars and those with special needs back into Cambridge Public Schools for four days of in-person learning per week (Wednesdays are virtual for everyone), with many more scholars continuing remotely.  Given that my colleagues and I spent the last seven months taking crash courses in pandemic management and school building health, I was relieved to hear reports from elementary school students that their first days were, in the words of one second grader, “amazing, amazing, amazing!”

I have learned a great deal about the physical challenges Covid-19 brings by participating in Buildings and Grounds Subcommittee meetings, talking with local scientists, absorbing public comments, and reading articles.  In all candor, at first I was unsure we would be able to provide sufficient protections to meet the level of safety standards needed to send children and staff into buildings.  I am grateful to feel confident that the physical spaces are safe.  Every room being used has at least four air exchanges per hour, teachers participate in surveillance testing, scholars are physically spaced six feet apart, and CPSD has a plethora of personal protective equipment (PPE).  The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, is that these layers of protection work. (I recently heard from a friend who teaches outside of Cambridge.  Her co-teacher tested positive after an exposure outside of school, but neither she nor anyone else at the school contracted Covid-19, presumably because they had protections like these in place.)   

(I participated in walkthroughs of four of our oldest school buildings before they reopened.  Pictured here is signage, PPE, and an air scrubber at the Tobin Montessori School.)

While attaining physical safety in our schools represents a sort of pandemic milestone, it by no means signifies a return to easier work.  In fact, my experience working with schools has shown me that it is often easier to address operational challenges than cultural ones.  We must persist in grappling with the more difficult challenges.  For example, what does it mean that white families chose in-person learning disproportionately over Black and Latinx families?  What is the district doing to better understand the concerns of families of color?  What adjustments can be made so that in-person enrollment mirrors the demographics of our student population?  I continue to push our Superintendent and administration to connect with families of color in order to address inequities.  

Becoming an antiracist district will take all of us excavating, examining, and unlearning biases we have absorbed from society.  I am pleased that my colleagues unanimously passed resolution 20-255, to protect Asian American students from the racial bullying and abuse the President has inspired.  Mayor Siddiqui brought this resolution forward and invited me to co-sponsor it.  We also passed motion 20-250, which I introduced and Members Rojas and Wilson co-sponsored.  The three of us were moved to bring this motion forward as a way for the School Committee to officially acknowledge multiplecomplaints of racial harm done by Members.  After witnessing a process that I felt went off-the-rails last year, and then seeing the variety of ways we responded to the Educators of Color Coalition this year, I felt it critical that we develop a transparent, predictable process for responding to future incidents.  Member Rojas’ Governance Subcommittee will bring a proposal back to the full Committee in the weeks ahead.  

There is always more to share - and I’m told my newsletters are text heavy already!  With so much in flux, at last week’s School Committee meeting I rattled off a dozen questions about staffing, such as:

  • How many teacher and paraprofessional positions are currently vacant?
  • How many children are being assigned new teachers when in-person learning starts?
  • How many second and third grade in-person classrooms are being staffed primarily by paraprofessionals rather than lead teachers?  

There was not time for the Superintendent to respond to each of my questions, so I am waiting on written responses.  (I will request that the written answers be posted with the meeting summary online.)  I also co-sponsored Member Wilson’s motion 20-251 to convene a roundtable with elementary school principals to hear directly from our school leaders about what is working this year and what challenges remain.  Principals have critical information and perspective on how to support our children.

Finally, but most importantly, please VOTE!  Every registered Cambridge voter can vote early in-person, starting this Saturday and running through October 30th, at the Longfellow School, the Water Department, or the Valente Library.  Street addresses and hours are linked here.

In collaboration,


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