BURLINGTON - School officials are in the process of piecing an academic year together for 2020-21 with hopes of having the first day of class on Sept. 8.

In all likelihood, COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere until a vaccine hits the market, which isn’t expected until at least early 2021. This means that the start of the 2020-21 school year is going to look a lot different than it has any other year, with more safety guidelines than ever before.

Because of this, 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.

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 (no bus transportation guidelines have been unveiled by the state at this time).

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 likely 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 full return is “possible” at the elementary schools, while a hybrid plan will be needed at the Pre-K, middle school and high school levels. Remote instruction changes are required at all levels.

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 proposed opening calendar, as of now, is as follows:

- Tuesday, Aug. 25

First day for teachers, set up day, the same as prior to the pandemic.

- Wednesday, Aug. 26 through Friday, Aug. 28

Burlington Public Schools Conferences changed to Building-based PD and Preparation.

- Monday, Aug. 31 through Thursday, Sept. 3

Some in-person instruction for identified students, remote teacher and class introductions, possible transportation training, additional PD and preparation time.

- Tuesday, Sept. 8

First day of school for all students.

Next steps

The next steps call for the creation of a District Working Group to assist in answering frequently asked questions raised at each level.

On July, 31, there will be initial planning models presented to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Mid-August (14th), a full plan of documents from the district will be submitted to the DESE and a final decision regarding the fall instruction model will be made.

The District Working Group will be 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 meet for the first time next week.

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).

School Committee comments

The committee members expressed great appreciation to those involved in putting the school reopening plans together.

“Thank you for working on all these possible resolutions,” praised School Committee member Martha Simon. “I am very appreciative of how far you have come with this process. You have been very thorough and included everyone in the process.”

School Committee Chair Christine Monaco called Dr. Conti and his staff’s effort “herculean.”

Committee member Thomas Murphy, Jr. recognized the almost-impossible task of pleasing everyone with these plans, amidst the novel coronavirus.

“It is an impossible job putting something together in the next six weeks that is going to make the majority of people happy while delivering the desired education to students,” remarked Murphy. “It is a scary situation and a difficult hurdle at this point. I commend you and your staff, Dr. Conti.”

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

Expect updates on these plans and bus transportation parameters, once they are delivered from the state in the coming days.

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