By PATRICK BLAIS

READING - Schools Superintendent Dr. John Doherty recently advised the School Committee that the town’s youngest students will join with the district’s middle school population in returning to their classrooms on a part-time basis beginning on Oct. 13.

During the latest virtual gathering of the school board, the superintendent confirmed that Reading’s first and second graders will be amongst the second wave of pupils to resume in-person learning under the school system’s phased-in hybrid plan.

Kindergarteners and preschool aged children, as well as the town’s “high needs” students have been receiving face-to-face instruction from teachers since the Sept. 16 start of the 2020-2021.

“I’ve received many emails asking why these grades [are heading back before everyone else]. One reason is the importance of getting our early education children back in school. Remote learning is not the most optimum option for those students,” said the superintendent.

As of last week, central office administrators, trying to fill as many as 39 paraprofessional and classroom teacher vacancies, were still unsure of when high school pupils and those in grades 3 through 5 would return to their respective school buildings.

The superintendent did say he hopes the community will have completed the hybrid phase-in of the entire student body by the end of October.

“This is related to the openings we have for staff. It’s not really tied into anything else,” said Doherty, contrasting Reading’s situation with surrounding communities that began the year in a full-remote setting due to rising COVID-19 cases. “The town is still in a very good place, so this is not at all related to infection rates. It’s making sure we have sufficient staff to open up…The goal is still to have the rest of the grades come in by late October.”

Prior to last week’s School Committee meeting, the school administration had not yet finalized the return-to-school timeline for first or second graders, many of whom are unable to work independently and thus tend to struggle more than their older peers with remote or virtual learning settings.

The superintendent in early September had previously cautioned parents that second graders would likely be returning back to the classroom after first graders. That revelation had drawn some criticism from working parents, who felt helpless in seeing their children fall behind due to the virtual teaching format.

“Respectfully, please include second grade in this initial push for hybrid learning. We’ve done our best to prepare our second grader to independently read and navigate Google classroom in anticipation for remote learning, but feel like we are asking her to attempt a task that is developmentally inappropriate,” wrote local parents Monika and Jim Flaherty in one such letter addressed to the School Committee on Sept. 15.

“[My daughter’s] teacher is amazing, She is patient and kind and has incorporated feedback and given advice. The problem is most seven-year-olds do not have the intellectual, technological, or attention ability to access the curriculum across this medium,” remarked Hanscom Avenue resident Denise Henneberry in separate correspondence sent to the school board on Sept. 19.

During the recent School Committee meeting, Doherty acknowledged the concerns raised by parents and explained that if he a sufficient number of classroom instructors, he would have authorized an earlier return to school for first and second graders.

“I wish we could do this sooner, but he have a Grade 1 teacher who can’t start until Oct. 13,” he explained. “The middle school didn’t have a lot of vacancies, so they’ve been ready to go.”

Originally, the district had planned to return students to the classroom by age group under a phase-in approach that would be implemented between Sept. 15 to Oct. 19. However, due to staffing complications, including the processing of medical and personal leave requests, Doherty in August announced the implementation of the phase-in model would likely be delayed by at least a month.

Reading High School pupils would be the last age group to return to the classroom.

Technically, as of last week, the community had a sufficient number of high school teachers to switch to the hybrid plan. However, according to Doherty, the problem is at least five of those teachers have indicated they will formally ask for a leave-of-absence, should they be asked to engage with high schoolers in face-to-face learning.

Outside of that potential RMHS staffing issue once the switch from a full-remote to hybrid model is made, central office administrators are also trying to fill present-day staffing rosters, which as of the latest School Committee meeting included the need for:

• 27 paraprofessionals;

• A job opening for a Birch Meadow Elementary School teacher

• A Killian Elementary School vacancy;

• and two Parker Middle School openings.

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