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School Committee views proposed phased-in plan to return students to classrooms starting in April

Mar 08, 2021 09:18AM ● By Lisa Redmond

TEWKSBURY – With COVID-19 cases declining across Massachusetts, state education officials last month started pushing local school districts to look at a “phased approach’’ to returning students to classroom.

Tewksbury school administrators appeared before the School Committee at a special meeting on March 3 to discuss a proposed two-phase plan to return students to school.

Under Phase 1, elementary students would return to their classrooms for four hours per day starting April 5, with Wednesdays being an all-remote day. Grades 7-12 would remain also remain in school longer than under the hybrid schedule starting April 12.

The schedule for all students in Kindergarten through Grade 4, under Phase 1 would start their day in school at 8:35 a.m., leave school for lunch and be bused home where they would receive more instruction remotely.

Under the proposed Phase 1, middle school and high school students would arrive at their school buildings at 7:30 a.m., break for lunch at 11:30 a.m. and then be bussed home for remote learning by cohorts, meetings with guidance and then dismissed at 1:50 p.m.

In Phase 2 of the proposed plan, on May 3 all elementary and middle school students to return to full-time, in-person learning.

Also, under Phase 2 plane, on May 10 students in grades 7-12 will have longer days – a minimum of five hours of in-school education – with a potential to ramp up for a full day with lunch but those schedules are still being developed.

School Superintendent Chris Malone told the School Committee that this is a proposed plan was the combined effort of a special task force, surveys and work done by school staff and administrators.

But Malone stressed that officials will seek input from the School Committee, parents, staff and educators before it is implemented. The committee is meeting again on March 10 at 5:15 p.m. before holding a public hearing on the proposed FY22 school budget at 6 p.m.

Malone noted that Tewksbury’s COVID-19 cases have been dropping for months which has resulted in the town’s risk being downgraded to yellow or the second-lowest risk rate.

As of March 4, Tewksbury had 67 positive cases (2,839 total cases since January 2020) with a positivity rate of 1.63% over a 14-day cycle. In December 2020, Tewksbury reported 387 positive cases in 14 days, while in January there were 298 cases number decreased to 134 cases in February.

 

Based on a townwide survey, parents “overwhelmingly believe it is time for students to return to school.’’ Tewksbury educators still have safety concerns about COVID 19.

A big factor in the return to in-person learning push is that the state has expanded the eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations to educators starting on March 11.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has also updated its guideline by reducing the distance between school desks and chairs, from 6 feet to a minimum of 3 feet.

Parents overwhelmingly supported the 3-foot distancing requirement, yet staff still have concerns, Assistant Superintendent Brenda Regan told the committee.

Additional factors:

·      Tewksbury has been selected to participate in a free state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education pooled testing program to test entire classrooms with a rapid test result and quickly identity any COVID-19 cases in school. Parents can opt out of the program and school officials are working with the teachers’ union about staff participation.

·      Safety protocols such as wearing a mask and hand washing would still be required. Contact tracing will most likely increase as needed.

·      DESE has loosened restrictions on school buses, allowing more students to ride the bus as long as windows are open, masks are worn and other safety protocols are followed.

·      As a safeguard, the School Department can pivot back to the current Hybrid or remote model if safety concerns arise.

Malone said operating for nearly a year with a hybrid learning model due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been “very strenuous.’’ He praised the school staff for doing an “outstanding job to meet the needs of students under pretty extreme circumstances.

But the priority has been to return all students, especially the youngest students, to in-person learning. “Hybrid learning is no replacement for full-time (classroom) learning,’’ Malone said.

The hybrid model, which most school districts are using, divides students into cohorts that switch off in-school learning with remote learning. But it falls short of meeting the social and emotional needs of students, so children feel isolated, according to school officials.

Malone said there are “very strong concerns’’ about the education students are receiving, along with and social and emotional health of the town’s students.

Teachers and parents have also struggled during this upheaval trying to juggle work and the child’s remote learning or arranging childcare. And there are added concerns about children having too much “screen time’’ and missing out on interpersonal connections.

 

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