Schafer: Kids likely back full-time this school year

Abington School Superintendent Peter Schafer says there’s a growing likelihood students will be able to return to classrooms full time before the end of this school year.

There isn’t a formal plan as of now, and Schafer isn’t sure what the state education officials will require. But COVID-19 infection rates are dropping, evidence continues to suggest that schools aren’t a significant spreader of the virus, the vaccination process is gaining speed, and the town just received a new pool of federal money to cover COVID-19-related expenses. 

“I’m feeling confident that before the end of the school year we will be back in person,” Schafer told the School Committee Tuesday night.

Abington school administrators were already looking at ways to get students back in classrooms more, but state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday morning will mandate that school districts return in-person, full-time by April. The full scope of the state requirements haven’t been revealed yet, but Riley and Baker said parents would be able to opt out, and there would be some wriggle room for districts struggling to meet safety requirements.

Students currently must sit at least three feet part from each other with masks on, and six feet apart when masks are off for lunch. The town’s collection of classrooms do not have enough space to meet this safety standard if all students return full time. Schafer earlier this month shared a photo of a reconfigured Beaver Brook classroom that could accommodate 19 desks spaced three feet apart. Most Abington elementary school classes exceed 24 students. 

Schafer said his office has already been reaching out to commercial property owners who may have space within a 5-mile radius that could be used for auxiliary classrooms. The former Frolio School is also being eyed for additional temporary classroom space. If additional space is found, Schafer said school administrators still need to devise a plan to provide auxiliary services and functions, such as student drop off and pick up, bringing over student breakfasts and lunches, providing school nurse coverage, and outdoor space for recess and mask breaks. 

“I don’t know what this look like or exactly when this will occur,” he said. “Logistically, we still need to make sure we’re creating a doable, engaging environment for the students we serve that’s not just a row of kids sitting quietly all day long. It’s got to be more than that. We owe everybody more than that.”

Melissa Cook, co-chair of the Woodsdale Elementary PTO, and the mother of a 4th, 3rd, and 1st grader, said she’s “relieved and thrilled” by the news students could be going back full-time soon. While cognizant of the additional health risks full-time, in-person learning places on educational staff, she also is concerned about the impact the pandemic is having on students’ emotional, mental, and social health.

“I gave a big ‘Hallelujah’ hearing Peter Schafer say he anticipates a full time return by the end of the school year,” Cook said.

Educators are included in Phase 2, Part 3 of the state’s vaccine roll-out plan. It is not clear, however, when when vaccines will be made available for that segment of the population. Many superintendents and union officials have been pushing the Baker Administration to make educators eligible immediately, especially if the goal is a full-time return to the classrooms.

[Editor’s note: the Abington Board of Health could vaccinate every educator in Abington in one day if the Baker Administration makes doses available.]

Abington recently received nearly $600,000 in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund II funds. This money was part of a $900 billion federal relief package passed by Congress in December. Schafer said this money provides Abington with additional flexibility when creating a return-to-school plan. In addition to covering salaries for additional teachers and support staff, Schafer said the school district, for example, could buy large tents that would allow students to eat lunch outside, especially as the weather warms up.

School committee members appeared supportive of the development, and mostly had logistical questions, such as negotiations with the teacher’s union, ways the state can help districts struggling to meet requirements, and whether the three foot requirement would be reduced.

Abington school officials plan on meeting with the Abington Education Association in the coming weeks to discuss anticipated changes in working conditions. 

Schafer told the school committee, however, that he doesn’t want to get too far into negotiations, without knowing what the state mandates will look like.

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