Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley issued guidance and a mandatory timeline Tuesday to elementary and middle schools for offering students in-person learning five days per week, starting in April.
For some Vineyard schools, this means adding one day of in-person instruction to the school week. For up-Island schools that are already offering in-person, full-time, only minor alterations will have to be made to the daily schedule.
A memo containing the guidance was posted by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). According to the memo, students in grades K-5 will be required to return to a full-time in-person learning model on April 5, and students in grades 6 to 8 must return by April 28. Guidance and a timeline for high school students will be released sometime in April, with at least two weeks’ notice provided to high schools before the required in-person deadline.
The remote cohort will still be available for students who opt out of the in-person model, although the memo states that schools may not be required to have a remote cohort starting in September. Schools can submit waivers allowing them to establish a separate timeline that accommodates specific circumstances. Elementary schools must submit waivers by March 22, and middle schools must submit them by April 12.
The requirement for “full-time” in-person learning means that all structured learning-time hours (on average, five hours per day of structured learning time at the elementary level, and 5.5 hours per day at the secondary level) are required to be delivered in person, five days per week, the memo states.
According to the State House News Service, in announcing the dates, Riley is exercising a new authority granted to him by an 8-3 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Riley now has the authority to determine when partial and full-time remote learning models would no longer count toward student learning requirements.
With pooled testing in place and improvement in COVID-19 health metrics across the state, many districts and schools are already looking to bring back all students K-12 for full-time, in-person learning in the coming weeks, according to the memo.
According to MASC, 72 percent of districts in Massachusetts took advantage of the fall months to return to school fully in person or in a hybrid model. And based on recent survey data, nearly 80 percent of districts were in person or in a hybrid model as of mid-February 2021.
Many districts are also in the process of vaccinating school staff and faculty, including those on the Island. The first clinic for schools on-Island will take place at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital on March 11, from 4 to 8 pm, although faculty and staff can also register for the vaccine individually. All staff who want the vaccine are slated to receive it before the education commissioner’s established April deadline — adding to the confidence of a full return.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said in a phone conversation with The Times that schools on-Island are already “very close” to having kids back in school five days a week.
“We are either at 80 percent or 100 percent in our schools,” D’Andrea said of the volume of students engaged in full in-person learning.
Because of the varied circumstances for each Island school, some will have to make more changes than others.
Things like moving through the hallways, lunch period, and other logistical planning will have to be shifted slightly, due to some schools having limited space. With the weather warming up, some Vineyard schools are looking to bring back outdoor classrooms and lunch periods.
One central aspect of the commissioners’ guidance is the continued requirement that students maintain at least three feet of distance between each other when sitting at their desks. But, D’Andrea said, schools on-Island have been using the six-foot requirement established by the Centers for Disease Control, and currently don’t plan on changing that. When students are eating lunch or not wearing their masks for any reason, they must maintain a strict six-foot distance. Students and staff must maintain six feet of distance from students and colleagues “when feasible,” according to the guidance.
West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said up-Island students already have the option of being in-person five days per week, including kids at the Chilmark School.
“So we actually don’t have to make many changes,” she said. “We have lots of our kids back, and kids are shifting over from remote all the time, so we are in good shape. We have plenty of space, and we reconfigured early on by converting rooms into classrooms, and stuff like that.”
Other schools that don’t have kids back in full-time already will have to create a plan for adding the fifth day of in-person instruction, which must be implemented by the set deadlines.
Currently, Edgartown students in grades K-4 are learning in person Monday through Thursday, with a fully remote day on Friday. Kids in 5-8 are in person Tuesday through Friday, with Monday being their remote day. Oak Bluffs currently has the same schedule as Edgartown.