On Tuesday, March 10, the School Committee met with Dr. Gutekanst, the assistant superintendents, and the school principals to publicly discuss both opportunities and challenges for increasing in-person learning in grades 3 through 12. Commissioner Reilly has stated that grades 3 through 5 must return by April 5, and grades 6-8 by April 26. The return of grades 9-12 is still to be determined.
Each school principal briefly shared their thoughts and ideas on reopening fully, outlining the main challenges for their particular school. While there were unique concerns for each school depending on both space and student enrollment, some common themes emerged during the conversation.
Social and Emotional Benefits for Students and Staff
There was shared enthusiasm for bringing students back to help them reconnect with friends, as well as other social and emotional benefits.
Teachers working with K-2 students have found it rewarding to be able to bring all of their students together, and to be able to focus completely on the students in their classroom.
Class Sizes and Space Constraints
If class size remains limited to 17 students, several of the schools will need to create new classrooms and hire new staff to accommodate all students. Raising the class size to 21 or 22 per class would alleviate most of that pressure.
In the K-2 move to fully in person learning, few families volunteered to have their children change teachers, and many families were unhappy about their children switching classrooms. There is a desire to reduce or eliminate the need to change teachers for grades 3-5, but this would require larger class sizes.
The new guidance on student spacing specifies 3 feet from chair center to chair center, which means most classrooms can accommodate the larger number of students. Previously spacing had been 3 to 6 feet from chair edge to chair edge. Classrooms will feel much more crowded with the closer spacing and additional students.
A number of Remote Learning Academy (RLA) families have already contacted the district wanting to switch their students back to in-person learning. It is unclear if there will be enough space to accommodate all of them.
In many of the schools, tables have been swapped out for individual desks to allow for adequate spacing between students. Many of the desks are also being used in cafeterias, leading to a district-wide shortage of desks necessary to accommodate a full return of students.
Multiple schools reported needing anywhere from 80 to 125 additional desks in order to seat all students.
It is likely other districts are facing the same challenges, and that additional desks will be difficult to source quickly.
Because students must be spaced at least 6 feet apart when eating, providing lunch to all students is one of the biggest challenges across schools.
Many of the cafeterias are currently utilizing desks that will be needed for classrooms.
Several schools have already set up satellite eating areas to accommodate increased K-2 students — music rooms, performance centers, etc. Gyms made need to be utilized to accommodate more students.
Several schools will simply not be able to accommodate all children inside, so will need outdoor tents for eating areas. Drainage issues at certain locations prevents children sitting on the ground, so use of overturned buckets for seating was suggested, as is being used in a neighboring district.
In the event of severe weather, students would need to be moved to alternate spaces indoors — possibly gyms.
Additional staff is needed to supervise students in each satellite eating area, as well as additional custodial and nutrition services staff.
Classrooms are not practical for eating due the limited number of student they can accommodate with 6-foot spacing, plus the extra staff needed to monitor each classroom.
At the high school, open campus would need to be implemented for all four grades, and students would be strongly encouraged to leave campus for lunch.
Scheduling and Programming Considerations
Having students in-person on Wednesday mornings will be challenging for staff, especially those who will require childcare for their own children.
Some hybrid staff members are working fully remote this year and may not be able to return to the school buildings quickly.
Older students who are home quarantining are currently able to participate in synchronous remote learning. That will no longer be an option.
Even with all students back in school, classroom instruction will be strongly impacted by the necessary health and safety precautions.
Increased traffic at pickup and drop-off may require additional crossing guards at some schools.
Crowded hallways and limited stairs at Pollard may require students to exit and reenter the building to get to classes, requiring outdoor supervision.
The nursing staff is already working full-time to manage health attestations, contact tracing, and general physical and metal needs of students — doubling the number of students will require more nursing staff.
High School Challenges
Some high school students have expressed concern that increased class sizes will lead to more close-contacts and infections, and thus more school missed due to quarantining.
Students are most eager to resume in-person homeroom and club activities.
A more targeted approach to increasing in-person learning was suggested, including identifying higher-need students and bringing certain periods back in person, such as X block.
There are already many classroom disruptions in May between MCAS and AP exams, so perhaps it would be better to not also increase in-person learning at the same time.
There was strong agreement that prioritizing the return of seniors is important, followed by 9th graders.
Grades 3-8 will come back on April 5, though it may be imperfect given the fast timing.
Grades 6-8 might return prior to the April 26 deadline — Dr. Gutekanst would prefer to not implement changes right after April break, since he feels that this would result in added anxiety for students and staff.
The possibilities for increases at the High School will be explored.
Initial planning for grades 3-8 will be presented at the next SC meeting
A survey will be sent to families to gather information about the number of students who might be moving between RLA and in-person model
Health and safety will continue to be a priority