Back-to-school: 3 options, none ideal

Preliminary plan due July 31

“I want to say what everybody feels: we hate this.”

This comment from Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer seemed to sum up the tone surrounding much of Tuesday night’s three-hour school committee discussion around what the upcoming school year will look like.

Every public school district in Massachusetts by July 31 is required to come up with a preliminary plan on how they will educate students starting in September, while maintaining social distancing guidelines with the goal of preventing a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus. School districts are able to choose between students returning to classrooms full-time, continuing remote learning, or a hybrid of the two. 

However each of those options come with significant drawbacks.

According to a presentation prepared by Abington school officials, welcoming students back to the classroom full-time will mean a return to rows of separated desks facing forward, removing creative play and reading areas from lower grade classrooms, limiting close interactions between teachers and students, and students in grades 3-12 wearing masks six hours a day.

A hybrid model would mean students returning to the classroom part time — perhaps alternating days or weeks. Parents fear it will wreak havoc with their schedules as they return to work, among other concerns.  

And for those parents who experienced the joys of remote leaning this past spring — well, few people see the benefit of trying to introduce new material to students at home over the computer.    

“This isn’t what we want,” Schafer said about the three options the town is forced to choose between. However, he again reiterated that the school district will not go rogue and adopt a model that rejects or sidesteps public health guidelines issued by the state department of education. 

“We’re going to follow the rules because I’m not allowed to take risks with people’s lives,” he said. 

Scores of parents and teachers tuned in to the meeting, which was held via Zoom, and simulcast over Facebook and the town’s public access stations. 

The interim results of a survey show conflicting feelings between teachers and parents about returning to the classroom this fall.

Of the nearly 200 teachers and staff surveyed, 53 percent said they would feel comfortable going back to school full-time, with 47 percent saving they wouldn’t be. 

And with more than 800 parents weighing in so far, 60 percent said they would prefer kids are back in classrooms full-time. However, just 36 percent of teachers and staff feel the same way.  

In order to return to classrooms in September, state guidelines require school administrators to develop strategies to combat situations where students traditionally cluster together, such as group class work, passing in narrow hallways, eating in crowded cafeterias, and bottlenecks that form while entering and leaving buildings. 

Administrators say most classrooms are big enough to hold a full class of students while maintaining a minimum of three feet between students, who will be masked. However, accommodating this spacing, especially in the lower grades, will require removing most educational features of a modern classroom, such as creative play spaces, in-class libraries and reading nooks, carpeted meeting spaces, and learning stations. Instead, classrooms will see a return of rows of single desks and chairs. At the high school, caps on class size could mean reduced course loads, although administrators say students will still meet all minimum requirements for graduation and college. 

Some school corridors will become one-way to avoid congestion. Students may have to pick up their lunches from the cafeteria and return to the classrooms to eat. And safely welcoming students into school buildings and classrooms, as well as dismissing them at the end of the day, will eat into learning time. 

But the biggest change – and the biggest concern identified by parents in the survey – will be the requirement that students above Grade 2 wear facial coverings the entire school day, even when more than six feet away from other people. Students would be allowed to remove them while eating and would receive outdoor breaks where they could remove their face coverings. 

School committee member Chris Coyle pointed out that students will be held to a different standard than their parents who are returning to the office. State guidelines allow workers to remove their masks when at their work stations if they can maintain social distancing. 

School committee member Jackie Abrams, who is also a teacher, said educators will likely be spending considerable time reminding students to wear masks properly.  

“A lot of this is going to be the mask police,” she said. 

Masks will also have to be worn while on school buses. New guidance from the state also places a limit of one student/household per bench, and bus windows must remain open. No word yet on what happens if it’s raining or temperatures drop below freezing.

Abrams expressed concern that the distancing guidelines would particularly harm teachers ability to work closely with students, such as with handwriting, as well as provide comfort when needed. Specifically, if a student is upset or injured on the playground “will the teachers air high-five them back to happiness?”

Schafer said the state is still working on guidelines to address these types of situations, as well as a host of others, including fire drills. 

He said the response has been: “You will receive additional guidance.”

Under a hybrid model, classes would be divided and students would attend on split schedules – perhaps alternating days or weeks. 

With fewer students in classrooms and buildings, some of the changes could be loosened. According to the administration’s evaluation, “staff will be able to more effectively facilitate social-emotional education.”

However, the burden would then fall largely on parents, who are starting to return to work, to arrange child care for the days their children aren’t in class. 

Coyle said he felt like some of the presentation seemed to advocate more for the hybrid model. Schafer said the goal was to show what will and won’t be possible under the three models. 

School Committee Chairwoman Wendy Happel spent more than an hour reading questions emailed to her by parents during the meeting.  

Several questions asked about plans for students with disabilities, and whether they will continue to receive full legally required services.  

School officials said if a hybrid or remote option is chosen that preschool age students and students with complex disbailities would be prioritized for in-person instruction. Other students would receive in-person services as much as possible. Individualized Education Plans would also remain in effect. 

Schafer said Abington isn’t the only school district struggling with the ever-evolving,yet still incomplete guidelines from the state. 

“Conversations  are going on in all directions,” he said. “Some feel these are too strict,  and others that its not strict enough.”

Abington’s preliminary school reopening plan is due in to the state on July 31; its final plan is due Aug. 10. 

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