Island schools are proposing a phased approach to returning students and staff to in-person education.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said at an All-Island School Committee meeting that school officials have met with health professionals spearheading the health and wellness portion of the return, and they are suggesting a phased approach.
As part of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) “two-step process for fall reopening plans,” districts must complete and submit a preliminary reopening plan summary to DESE by July 31, then districts must finalize their comprehensive plan documents, submit them to DESE, and release them publicly to their communities by Aug. 10.
D’Andrea said schools are proposing to have the first phase start on Sept. 2, with staff only in the schools for 10 days. This first phase is meant to align with the state education commissioner’s order to reduce the student school year from 180 to 170 days.
The 10-day professional development period is meant to shore up school staff’s understanding of health protocols, and get everyone familiar with the necessary precautions involved with reopening safely.
“There is a lot of work that needs to be done before students can come in,” D’Andrea said. “We are going to utilize the 10 days to educate our staff, and prepare everyone for the safety measures that need to be implemented during the school day.”
After the 10-day staff-only period, school officials are looking at starting remote education for all grades on Sept. 17. During that phase, staff plan to share as much information with the community as possible about plans for in-person learning, and hear back from families about what they want to see during the academic year.
“We would be sharing protocols, and sharing information on remote learning platforms. So it is really getting students ready for both the remote realm, and for when they do arrive at school,” D’Andrea said.
On Sept. 28, under the proposed plan, students in grades K-3 would move into a hybrid learning model, with separate cohorts alternating between in-person learning and remote learning.
Students in grades 4-12 would continue remote learning until Sept. 30, and would transition into the hybrid model on Oct. 1.
“This would allow us to move into the school year slowly and gradually, giving us the opportunity to make corrections, if needed,” D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea said the school districts will be releasing another survey alongside the preliminary reopening plan, asking families what they want to see in regard to in-person learning, and also how many families will take advantage of in-person education, bus transportation, and the school meals program.
In a recent survey sent to families by Island schools as part of the preliminary reopening plan, the figures indicate that there is a high level of concern about the virus, but a strong willingness to return to school.
One question on the survey asked how likely families are to send their kids back to school if the currently proposed safety measures are implemented.
The survey showed that 42.9 percent of those surveyed would be “very likely” to send their child to physical school with the proposed safety measures and health guidance.
Some families said they need more information from the school before making a decision, while 8.2 percent said they were “not likely” to have their child return to school.
Of those surveyed who said they would not be sending their kid back to school, 51.6 percent said they will not be sending their child back because of general concern for their child’s health. Another 44.4 percent of families not sending their children back said it is because they do not have enough information.
All-Island School Committee member Alex Salop said that when the final plan is submitted to a public audience, it has to be done in a way that is easily digestible. “Basically, what we are proposing here is a hybrid model with a runway. I think that general idea is what people will be most interested in, and are most likely to support,” Salop said.
Committee member Kate DeVane asked how the schools will be keeping track of families with kids who go away for the weekend to an area with high rates of COVID-19.
“If a family goes to New York for the weekend, how is the school managing that kind of thing?” DeVane asked,
School nurse Catherine Coogan said this is one of the questions that is put on the daily prescreening checklist for students and staff — asking whether or not they have left the state, and to where.
Committee member Kris O’Brien asked what the policy and budget ramifications are, and D’Andrea said he would do his best to disseminate that information to the school community.
“But that information may change as time goes on,” D’Andrea said.
O’Brien also wondered whether the school was looking at the option of using alternative learning sites, either outdoors, or inside public institutions like libraries.
D’Andrea said satellite classrooms are a major consideration for making sure there is enough space for students to learn effectively.
According to D’Andrea, school officials are working on the final reopening plan, which he said is already almost 190 pages long, and are looking to get that plan to the school committee for their next meeting.
D’Andrea reiterated that the current document is not finalized, and said families can submit questions and input to his email until Monday.
“I know there are many, many unanswered questions that are going to be answered in time, as we get closer to the school year, and as we are in the school year,” D’Andrea said.
Apart from coming up with a plan to safely reintegrate students into their schools, the logistical issues of having kids learn and move about the school while following public health protocols are many.
D’Andrea said transportation would be a challenge, because the buses would only be able to fit “a small fraction of the number of riders on the bus,” so the school would need to stagger start times for different grade levels.
The state education department recently released guidelines for school transportation as a supplement to the fall reopening plan. These guidelines include windows being open whenever possible, a bus monitor, assigned seating, and significant reduction of maximum ridership. For example, a 47-passenger bus will only be allowed to transport a maximum of 15 passengers at a time.
The hallway and classroom dynamics are also of concern, particularly for schools that are not as spacious, and require students to pass close by one another in the hallway.
“Students would need to be kept in cohorts in the same classroom all day for the lower grade levels. For older students, this would be very challenging,” D’Andrea said. “Teachers would need to travel from class to class — I don’t think we could accomplish that at the high school; we have to have students moving through the halls.”
If the pandemic worsens and more people become infected, D’Andrea said students and staff would need to be ready to rapidly transition to a remote model that focuses on student participation and engagement.
“We would aim for a consistent schedule and getting regular feedback from the community,” D’Andrea said. He said the school district would continue to provide lunches to families, along with the technology necessary for remote education.