Beyond the Classroom, Lurking Fears and Conflicting Truths

Reopening Cambridge’s schools has surfaced tensions old and new — between public and private schools, between teachers and administrators, between vulnerable families and the representatives tasked with speaking on their behalf — challenging the district’s stated commitment to “equity and access.” And as plans continue to shift, some parents worry that those at greatest risk may ultimately have the least say in the process.


Joan N. Kane ’00 and her family take pandemics very seriously.

Her grandmother, Barbara Kokuluk, survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic orphaned on a peninsula in remote, subarctic northwestern Alaska. In Jan. 1919, Barbara was only six years old. Still, she, along with her ten-year-old sister Ursula and one-year-old sister Theresa, managed to travel 20 miles to an orphanage.

The sickness that threatened the life of Kane’s grandmother devastated countless other Alaska Native families. Across the world, the 1918 pandemic had a 2.5 percent mortality rate. In Alaska, though, Alaska Natives accounted for approximately 82 percent of deaths, despite making up only 48 percent of the territory’s population. One estimate suggests that the mortality rate for Alaska Natives reached eight percent.

Kane, a poet and visiting lecturer and fellow at the Radcliffe Institute, often finds herself thinking about her family’s history as she worries about its future.

Both of Kane’s sons attend Cambridge Public Schools. Her eldest is in the seventh grade at Putnam Avenue Upper School, and her youngest is in the fifth grade at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School. Conscious of the “disproportionate impact” of the pandemic on people of color, she considers how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect her sons in ways that she “can’t even imagine.”

“We’re at a high risk statistically because we’re Native American and disproportionately impacted by almost every health indicator in this country,” she says.

Like many parents across Cambridge, Kane has found herself in a precarious position. As the school year began, she weighed her hopes of reintroducing her children to some in-person socialization against the uncertainty of how to ensure their safety. Schools, meanwhile, were caught in a similar limbo, attempting to balance precaution against the wide-ranging, sometimes contradictory preferences of families and educators.

The Cambridge Public School District opted for a phased-in hybrid approach to reopening this fall, starting all students learning remotely on Chromebooks four days a week. Starting Oct. 13, eligible students — including preschool through first graders, some second and third graders, English language learners, and those in special education programs — could choose to come to school four days per week for in-person classes.

For students to continue learning in-person, two of three things must remain true at any given time: The average daily number of new confirmed cases in the last week in Cambridge must remain under 25 per 100,000 residents, the rate of positive tests in Cambridge over the previous two week period must stay below five percent, and the level of COVID-19 in Cambridge sewage water cannot stray above 100 copies viral genomes per milliliter.

On Dec. 6, the district’s “COVID-19 Data Dashboard” reported that both the level of COVID-19 in the sewage water and the daily number of new positive cases had surpassed the thresholds set by the district. Sewage numbers reached 658.5 copies viral genomes per milliliter and confirmed cases per 100,000 residents reached 26.9. Accordingly, Superintendent Kenneth N. Salim announced that schools would shift to a week of all-remote learning starting Dec. 10.

Though currently only temporary, the sudden shift reflects the general air of uncertainty that has surrounded the academic year since planning for reopening began this summer.

Asked about an ideal reopening plan for her children, Kane explains that she doesn’t “necessarily even need them to be back in the classroom or back in the physical school building.” What she’s really looking for, she says, is the sense of community that’s “an extension of the classroom, beyond the Chromebook.”

A sense of community alone isn’t a full solution, but it might provide some relief to Kane, a single parent. A poet with four part-time teaching jobs, Kane is the only adult in her house; she is solely responsible for her two young boys.

“Even the most inclusive public school environments tend to privilege the type of student who is in a dual-parent, single-child household, which I think is what the expectation is culturally for a lot of kids,” Kane says.

Before Oct. 13, Debbie J. Bonilla, a CPS parent, anticipated reopening to present a “horrible” choice for families: “Do I send my child in or do I quit work? And then what do I do for money?”

Bonilla is the district’s Title I Family Liaison, meaning she works to address the needs of families at schools serving a high percentage of low-income students. She’s also CPS’s outreach service worker for those experiencing homelessness. These combined roles put Bonilla in frequent contact with some of Cambridge’s most vulnerable families.

When she thinks about reopening, she often has these students and their families in mind. She recognizes that CPS has prioritized returning high-need students to the classroom but also points out that going back puts them at a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19.

Despite its reputation of wealth and privilege, the city of Cambridge boasts a fairly diverse population of public school students. In the 2018-19 school year, more than a quarter of students were from families considered “economically disadvantaged,” and 59.3 percent were non-white.

The challenge of reopening has surfaced tensions old and new — between public and private schools, between teachers and administrators, between vulnerable families and the representatives tasked with speaking on their behalf — testing the district’s ability to accommodate the needs of the diverse community it serves.

Because she is Puerto Rican and her children are Puerto Rican and Black, Bonilla explains, the pandemic “hits our people first, it hits our people the hardest.”

“There’s a real fear out there,” she says.

It’s the same fear Kane and countless other parents across the district feel: a creeping suspicion that those families most at risk may have the least say in the decision making process.

Two Truths

Just above his head in the Zoom frame, Dr. Bradley E. Bernstein raises one hand. As he ranks the importance of COVID-19 safety measures for a return to in-person schooling, he lowers his hand incrementally to indicate notches in a descending list of bullet points.

Being able to monitor local levels of COVID-19 through testing is the highest priority, he says, followed by securing personal protective equipment for students and teachers and the proper ventilation of school buildings. Social distancing, he adds, is “the fourth thing or fifth thing down.”

“From a scientific perspective, I’ve given you the ranking,” he says. “But probably we need to pay attention to the perception.” There’s a difference, Bernstein explains, between the measures that will limit the spread of the virus and those that will make students and educators comfortable in the classroom.

On July 14, the Cambridge School Committee convened a special meeting to discuss fall reopening plans. For over four hours, the committee heard public testimony, received a presentation from the superintendent, and posed questions to Bernstein and two other public health experts.

The Cambridge School Committee is a seven-member board of local elected officials chaired by Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui that oversees “overall School Department policy and budget.” This year, however, its duties included managing the district’s reopening.


When the committee decided to recruit a team of health experts to provide scientifically-grounded advice, it didn’t have to look far: All of the doctors and public health officials who serve on the task force are members of the Cambridge community. “When it comes to these issues around public health, the expertise was here,” explains Mannika L. Bowman, the committee’s vice-chair. Bernstein, for example, is a professor of pathology at Mass General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Broad Institute’s Epigenomics Program.

It’s rare for a relatively small municipality to have such highly credentialed medical advisors. Still, not everyone felt comfortable heeding the task force’s advice.

All three task force members who served on the July 14 Zoom panel were white. Amara E. Donovan — a CPS parent and leader of the Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, an advocacy group — says it was only after she and others complained about the task force’s lack of diversity that the committee added a doctor of color.

Listening to the panelists, Bonilla felt that the doctors advocated for a return to in-person classes, a message she says seems out of step with what parents of color wanted. “We already don’t trust you, and now you have white doctors telling us to come back?” she recalls thinking. “You’re just making things worse.”

Asked in October whether she had encountered this feedback, Bowman, who is Black, said it was her first time hearing of the issue.

For Bonilla and Donovan, the oversight highlights a disconnect between the district and families of color they say predates the pandemic. In recent years, students and families have criticized Cambridge schools for their handling of racist graffiti, perceived racism on the part of teachers, and an instance in which a white school committee member used the n-word in an academic discussion with high school students.

The Cambridge Families of Color Coalition, which Donovan helps lead, aims to support and advocate for families and students of color across the district. The official CFCC mission articulates a desire to “see Cambridge Public Schools be a place where Students of Color thrive academically, socially, emotionally, physically, and in spirit.”

During the pandemic, the group has worked to express families’ anxieties surrounding the possibility of returning to in-person schooling.

“They [the district] have only been addressing one aspect of the science data, and that is, ‘Well, if the metrics and the numbers are good, then there should be not a problem to go back,’” explains Bernette J. Dawson, another CFCC leader. “But science is also, too, about anxiety and fear, so that mental health aspect. And they’re not talking about that.”

On July 28, the CFCC published an official statement of demands addressed to the school committee, articulating its preference that school start completely remotely for the fall semester. The CFCC characterizes this plan as safety and equity driven, stressing the necessity of a phased-in approach that would allow families of color to participate in reopening decisions as they unfold.

“Returning to school has become a moment of unavoidable confrontation with an education system that has far too long disenfranchised Black and Brown youth, families, and educators,” the statement reads. “To create plans for an equitable return to school, Black and Brown students, families, and educators must have meaningful leadership in the planning, implementation, and decision-making processes.”

Families of color, Donovan suggests, had unique concerns that led them to err on the side of caution: Many of the families she represents live in multi-generational households, where elderly family members or those with pre-existing conditions face an elevated risk if exposed to COVID-19.

As a result, many families of color opted out of in-person classes, she says, leaving school buildings filled with disproportionately white and affluent students. According to data compiled by the Cambridge School Committee, only 47 percent of African American students in preschool through third grade chose to resume in-person schooling, while 62 percent of white students opted in.

Emie Michaud Weinstock, another CFCC leader, says the school district spent most of its attention on what sanitation and safety measures would be necessary for students to attend in-person classes. CFCC wanted to turn that attention toward “building a robust remote option for families.”

The CFCC aimed to keep families, including those who need to work outside the home, from feeling like they need to choose between their children’s safety and the highest quality education, she says.

“You need to do better by the families who are not in school, and generally those higher numbers are families of color,” Michaud Weinstock recalls.

But Rachel B. Weinstein, a member of the Cambridge School Committee, says that the committee is in fact hearing “a wide variety of experiences” — and not all of them align with the CFCC’s advocacy. While many families have characterized the committee’s limited, phased reopening plans as “reckless,” she says others have argued that the school should have accepted more students into the building “yesterday.”

Weinstein calls these two preferences “both truths.” On the one hand, she agrees that the committee needs to prioritize safety and public health. On the other, she sees that students are “isolated and they’re lonely and virtual learning is hard.”

In mid-October, Weinstein says she heard most often from families who wanted their children back in school. Though parents cannot enter school buildings and students have to wear masks and maintain social distance, Weinstein says kids currently in the classroom “are so happy to go to school and to go back the next day and that they far prefer it to virtual learning.”

Asked about the CFCC’s concerns, Bowman, the committee’s vice-chair, also expresses her commitment to equity in education — but she realizes that equity means different things to different people. In her role, she prioritizes her commitments to “traditionally underserved” families and “families that have the most need.”

“It’s just tough dismantling years of white supremacy and discrimination within these institutions,” she adds.

But throughout this summer’s often tense planning process, these expressed commitments were not always visible to everyone. “It really felt like there was already plans and deliverables, and it was just meetings to make it seem like they included families of color when really they already knew what was going to come out of these meetings in the end,” Donovan says.

Michaud Weinstock similarly expresses that “it felt like they were checking a box by our presence as opposed to true, authentic and transparent decision-making.” For families and educators of color who met with the superintendent or assistant superintendents, she says their inclusion was “aspirational” but ultimately “inauthentic.” She believes, in the end, the administrators tend to listen to “the nice white parents.”

Weinstein acknowledges that the committee has room to grow in the way that it incorporates the views of different stakeholders, including students, caregivers, educators, and administrators. She says that some decision-making happened in stages rather than collectively: “Do I have the stakeholder at the table? Check. Did I reach out to multiple groups? Check,” she recalls.

Bowman, aware of the concerns of the CFCC, suggests that one advocacy group’s preferences can’t represent all of the community’s people of color. In fact, she says that surveys show that diverse voices and preferences exist within communities of color in Cambridge.

“I listened to those voices. I respect those voices. I honor those voices, but those voices do not represent every person of color in the city,” Bowman explains. “I think that we do people of color a disservice when we lump everyone into one particular cohort.”

For Michaud Weinstock and other CFCC members, the Cambridge district’s efforts to create what she calls a “blanket policy” regarding reopening feels counterproductive given the very diversity that Bowman cites.

“CPSD seems to create solutions that are one-size-fits all,” Michaud Weinstock says. “Families of color are nuanced and they need to be listened to in their nuances.”

‘Listening to Silence’

A teacher’s request to “go around the table” and share ideas may be familiar to anyone acquainted with the traditional classroom. But a “Jamboard Opening Circle?” Perhaps a lesser known tactic.

These days, little-known, recently developed teaching strategies are the new norm for educators like Xi Yu ’13, a math teacher at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. The Jamboard opening circle is just one of the latest additions to her teaching repertoire – it’s the image of her students’ names positioned around a “table,” aimed at facilitating taking turns in virtual discussions.

Yu has needed a way to encourage sharing between students, whether to start off Monday morning class or, earlier in the year, help them digest a series of Zoom bombings at her school.

“The school didn’t provide any immediate guidance for how to repair the harm done by the racially and sexually explicit words and images that broke into classrooms,” Yu writes of the Zoom bombings in her personal blog “Dismantling Mathematics.” “Although my classes were not affected, it was necessary to provide a space for students (and teachers I worked on a team with) to process.”

This summer, Yu joined a large team of teachers, guidance counselors, special educators, and administrators that gathered to envision what remote learning could look like come fall.

Among the group’s concerns, Yu recalls, was equity — often articulated with a similar vocabulary as the CFCC. “What is our vision for what education can look like?” she remembers asking herself. “What does it look like from an equity lens? What does it look like from an anti-racist lens?”

Some educators in Cambridge worried that the district would exclude them from the process of planning reopening by hiring outside consultants. At a school committee meeting on June 30, teachers testified publicly against contracting consulting services from the District Management Group, who one CRLS faculty member said would “not know our students or our community and who are not invested in racial equity.”

After their testimony, Superintendent Kenneth Salim decided to withdraw the recommendation for the contract and place it on file.

Still, many teachers say they struggled to assert themselves in the planning process on the individual school level. By mid-August, the district still had not published an official plan for fall reopening, but Yu says that many at the time expected Cambridge to submit a hybrid proposal.

A small team of teachers at her school had been devising possible schedules to accommodate different reopening scenarios: “How many classes will people be taking? How much time would each of us spend in front of the screen? If it were hybrid, which group of students is going to be in the building? When? What time?” Yu recalls.

But in the end, the administration didn’t accept any of the teachers’ designs. Instead, it distributed its own schedule a few weeks before the official start of classes.

“Despite us working on teams that were supposed to have the voice over the summer, we ended up with a bell schedule that we had very little input in, but was apparently administration taking in the voices of lots of stakeholders, and this is the best compromise they could make,” Yu says.


After the district decided to move forward with an all-remote start, teaching struggles became pedagogical as well as logistical. When the district set aside ten days before the start of school for teachers to engage in professional development, Yu led workshops for her colleagues on how to create community in a remote classroom.

Being entirely on Zoom makes it difficult to encourage students to engage with both her and each other, Yu says. She can’t ask students to discuss math problems with “a neighbor” or walk around the class to check in and survey their work.

“In the Zoom room, you’re just listening to silence,” she explains. “And a teacher without strategy to combat this might just be sitting in awkward silence for a very long time.”

Particularly when students don’t have their cameras turned on, it is challenging to encourage and engage students, say Yu and her colleague Rachel E. Otty, a history teacher at CRLS. Though many of Otty’s students keep their cameras on throughout class, she says a significant number don’t and may not participate aloud or through Zoom’s chat function.

Unlike the spring when she had spent some in-person time with her students, Otty worries about her ability to get to know them in a completely remote setting. She admits her first week was marked by “utter exhaustion” and “a little sadness.”

By the third week, though, she felt more optimistic. Still, she was teaching some students whose faces she had never seen. She explains that, as a school policy, teachers can encourage or request cameras to be on but never require it.

“I think in part it’s an equity issue and not wanting to make people feel uncomfortable, whether that’s uncomfortable because of what’s going on in the background, or if they’re feeling sort of emotionally uncomfortable with it,” Otty says.

Yu believes that forcing students to have their cameras on is a form of policing — a classroom dynamic she aims to avoid.

On her blog, Yu noted a pattern in the students who chose to turn their cameras on for class. “I notice that only White students in my honors classes voluntarily turned their webcams on in Spring 2020 emergency distance learning. I notice that in my non-honors classes, my summer school credit recovery class, and my summer program for students of color (SOCs) in honors classes, only one out of ~45 students voluntarily turned their webcam on during class,” she wrote. “I notice that a colleague who previously taught at a private school said that there were no problems with students turning webcams on at her school.”

“It was this huge rush of not feeling prepared, feeling like a first year teacher again,” Yu says of the transition to remote learning.

On Nov. 17, Kenneth Salim, the Cambridge superintendent, addressed the school committee to discuss possible reopening plans for the spring 2021 semester. Though cases of COVID-19 are currently on the rise, every option remains on the table for spring – from reverting to an all-remote format to continuing with hybrid learning or increasing the number of students enrolled in-person.

Thinking about the resources necessary to accommodate the district’s most vulnerable families, Kane says she’s unsure “how these things are going to resolve.”

But Bowman, the school committee vice-chair, suggests that money has never posed a barrier to reopening in Cambridge. “We had the resources to do it,” she recalls. “It wasn’t money; it was a will issue.”

While keeping all students at home this fall might have been the “safer” option, Bowman says, introducing in-person learning for the highest-need students “was a really bold thing to do.”

‘A Dr. Fauci-Approved Set Up’

Elsewhere in Cambridge, the challenge of reopening has cultivated less controversy.

At Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, a Cambridge K-12 private school, in-person classes resumed at the start of its school year in September. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade attend four days of in-person classes during the week; those in seventh through twelfth grade attend two. The majority of students decided to take the school up on its offer, with 88 percent of students in the lower school, 94 percent in the middle school, and 95 percent in the high school opting for in-person learning.

For the 2020-21 academic year, BB&N charges $36,400 in annual tuition for “beginners” through grade three, $40,600 for grades four and five, $48,400 for grade six, $51,800 for grades seven and eight, and $52,300 for grades nine through 12.

Alison M. Hong, whose son is a senior at BB&N, says she was pleasantly surprised by the back-to-school experience, which unfolded “pretty seamlessly” in the first weeks back. “For my son, at least,” she adds.

The school converted its athletic center into classrooms and tore down walls in some existing class spaces to ensure six-feet of distance between students. Sophomores and juniors report to the athletic center for their class days while freshmen and seniors learn in a separate classroom building. New outdoor tents allow students to eat lunch through bad weather and take their classes outside if necessary. Inside, kids report to assigned bathrooms and can only walk in one direction down the hallway.

“I fully recognize my privilege of being a stay- at- home mom and being able to manage these things,” Hong says, referencing the days her son attends classes remotely. “I feel like BB&N is really thoughtful in the fact that its community is diverse.” In planning its reopening, Hong says the school thought deeply about how best to “address the needs of all the community members.”

To ease the challenges of hybrid learning, BB&N distributed iPads to teachers and provided lapel microphones, boom microphones, and speakers to enhance the experiences of those using Zoom. AV units and 55-inch flat-screen TVs project the faces of remote learners into the physical classroom.

But the makeup of BB&N’s “diverse community” is noticeably different from that of the Cambridge Public Schools: According to a November 2019 report on inclusivity commissioned by its “head of school,” only five percent of BB&N students self-identify as “Black/African American,” and just under six percent self-identify as “Hispanic/Latinx.”

Still, education in a pandemic isn’t easy — even for a well-resourced school like BB&N. Many teachers echo the sentiment voiced by Yu, the CRLS math teacher, that remote teaching feels like “being a first-year teacher again.” Susan D. Glazer ’98, head of the History and Social Sciences department at the BB&N Upper School, says “there’s a lot of fear about coming in” among staff, even with the school’s rigorous social distancing procedures.

“I think people maybe don't recognize just what is going on in order to make a school function, whether the school is in a hybrid form or if it's in remote,” Glazer says. “Absolutely every single aspect of school has been changed and has to be rethought and re-imagined and replanned.”

What makes the difference, parents say, is the extent to which the administration appears to take their preferences into account.

After her son’s first day attending in-person classes, Hong says he told her he couldn’t imagine a way of contracting COVID-19 at school given the safety measures BB&N observed.

“I know he could catch COVID by going to the parking lot after school and having four friends come in his car,” Hong says. “But the actual school part? I won’t say it’s impenetrable, but it, again, is a rule-abiding, Dr. Fauci-approved set up.”

“I felt like there was a lot of trust on my end that they would kind of try to figure it out without there being other intentions and kind of keep it in the interest of students foremost,” says Young Ju A. Rhee, whose son is in ninth grade at BB&N. “So whatever they announced, my husband and I thought we would just go with that,” she says.

Rhee feels as if she and other private school parents had more ownership over their schools’ reopening processes. She and her husband were willing to trust BB&N’s decisions, she says, because she felt satisfied with her involvement in shaping them.

“And I suppose parents in public schools would do this with the town, right?”

This is a developing story. Check for updates.

— Staff writer Mollie S. Ames can be reached at