BURLINGTON - A hybrid return to accompany the district’s remote learning model for all students was approved by the School Committee during a special meeting this past Monday night.

The committee ratified the School Administration’s hybrid reopening model recommendation by a 4-1 vote. Member Carl Foss voted against, citing his preference for a remote start and a phased return to in-class learning.

School Supt. Dr. Eric Conti, his staff, teachers, parents and the School Committee have collaborated in crafting guiding principles to assist in making the “new normal” process a bit more manageable for this upcoming school year. An intensely thorough presentation took place at the School Committee’s most recent meeting, where actual plans for where, when and how learning is going to happen were discussed and eventually approved by the committee.

Guiding principles

- The reopening plan should reflect the safety recommendations by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for students and staff.

- Social-emotional and physical wellness of students and staff takes precedence over academic learning.

- Remote/on-line learning cannot replicate students’ experience in their school communities with their teachers, administrators, peers, and support staff.

- The more independent the learner, the lower the negative impact of remote learning.

- Students who require specialized support to re-enter school will have a different re-entry to meet their needs.

- The district will prepare to seamlessly move between in-person instruction and remote instruction, if the school buildings are closed again.

- Transportation will not be guaranteed as prior to the pandemic.

Following guidelines

The district was tasked with conducting a feasibility study and is responsible for developing a reopening plan with three possibilities, such as in-person learning with new safety requirements, a hybrid of in-person and remote learning, and remote learning. State guidance calls for a focus on the feasibility to return to full in-person learning when it is safe to do so.

Classroom distancing is one of the most important objectives, and since the initial guidance came out, school officials have been examining physical spaces in the school building to determine the feasibility of bringing students back into school while providing for physical distancing. The district explored different distances along the 3-6-foot continuum. The results of the space analysis reveal that the district has enough physical space in its buildings to return to some full in-person instruction, while also being able to exceed the 3-foot minimum physical distancing standards established by the state. However, there isn’t sufficient space to be able to return all students to school with 6-feet of physical distancing. The result will see children back in class with 3-4-feet of physical distancing.

The feasibility results, as stated by Dr. Conti, declared that a hybrid return will be followed at the elementary schools, Pre-K, middle school and high school levels. Remote instruction changes are required at all levels.

The hybrid model will have elementary students attend each morning in-person and learn remotely in the afternoon, while middle and high school students will attend school in-person two days per week and learn remotely the other three days of the week.

The Burlington Early Childhood Center will follow a hybrid and remote plan, with special education students having class every day, every week; general education students will meeting every other week, and all students will have a remote component every day.

The elementary schools will follow a full return and remote learning plan. All students will be in class five days per week (roughly 8 a.m. to noon) and they will go home for lunch with a remote learning component (social studies/science) after lunch, four days a week. There will be a deep cleaning every Wednesday afternoon.

The middle school will adhere to a hybrid and remote learning plan, with a split schedule for Groups A and B. This means there will be two in-person days with lunch at home and an afternoon remote component. Day three will consist of morning remote learning, afternoon meetings and cleaning, while days four and five are set to be two remote learning days. Group C students may attend additional days in person.

The high school is expected to move forward with the same hybrid and remote learning plan as the middle school, except students will stay for lunch at the high school.

The approved school calendar is as follows:

- Monday, Aug. 24

First day for teachers; set up day, building-based safety training; protocols and preparation.

- Tuesday, Aug. 25 through Friday, Aug. 28

Building-based safety training.

- Monday, Aug. 31

Teacher setup day; some in-person instruction for identified students; remote teacher and class introductions; possible transportation training; additional professional development and preparation time.

- Tuesday, Sept. 1 through Thursday, Sept. 3

Professional development days; additional safety training.

- Friday, Sept. 4

Closed.

- Tuesday, Sept. 8 through Wednesday, Sept. 9

Professional development days; additional safety training.

- Thursday, Sept. 10

First day for students with in-person learning in grades 1-5, 6 and 9, and the Burlington Early Childhood Center. The first day for students with remote learning in grades 7-8 and 10-12.

- Monday, Sept. 14

The first day of school for all other students. 

Next steps

The District Working Group, which will continue to work to navigate the hybrid reopening model process, is comprised of a myriad of school officials, including the superintendent, assistant superintendent, director of finance and operations, three building administrators, one special education administrator, four teachers (including a counselor/social worker), director of the Board of Health, lead nurse, one school nurse, one paraprofessional, director of Operations, director of Food Services, one operational support personnel (custodial, clerical, cafeteria), three parents (elementary, middle, and high school), one student, and one Town Meeting member. This group is expected to continue to meet throughout the school year.

The personal protective equipment (PPE) status in the district consists of two disposable masks per staff member per day, one disposable mask per student per day, additional PPE for nursing and special education staff including gowns and face shields, and 550 smile masks (can see the teachers mouth; good for foreign language classes). Dr. Conti confirmed the district is prepared with enough PPE for the first 12 weeks of school (using the DESE guidance).

Dr. Conti’s recommended hybrid and remote learning model was decided and based on the following guidelines - local positive cases stay at about 1 percent; provides a choice for families; allows for students most negatively impacted by remote learning to have an in-person experience; takes advantage of “good weather” and low local positive cases data; allows for relationships to start in-person, in case school buildings are closed again; and provides a schedule foundation that can be expanded to include more in-person learning or switched to remote learning.

A vital sticking point to ensure the classroom settings are adequate and safe has to do with the district’s commitment to evaluate the HVAC equipment in all the schools. They are in the process of doing that, with a third-party engineering firm and a field experienced resident, all of whom will evaluate the equipment.

School Committee comments

The committee understands there are risks in both respects, when it comes to having in-class learning and not having kids in-class at all. However, with the minimal number of positive COVID-19 cases in Burlington the last month, they feel there is no better time than now to try to get kids back in the classroom. If the the amount of cases begin to spike, then the district will go back to full remote learning.

“This is not an easy decision. I support the hybrid plan for restarting school,” School Committee member Thomas Murphy professed. “No one wants to put someone’s health and safety at risk, but the data on children who do not physically appear in school and what it does to them over a period of time is also a risk. There is no solution that does not have an element of risk to it. Our positive COVID-19 numbers in Burlington are significantly lower than the state average, so if we cannot try in-person learning now, when are we going to be able to?”

Dr. Conti concluded by reiterating his top priority with this plan, “We are trying to provide the largest, safest, and best in-person instruction that we can provide to students and staff.”

The committee approved the hybrid reopening plan by a 4-1 vote. Member Carl Foss voted against.

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