WOBURN - Schools' Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley wants to delay the opening of school until Sept. 21 or later to ensure returning teachers and staff can familiarize themselves with a host of new COVID-19 protocols.
During a School Committee meeting late last week, the superintendent advised the elected officials of his intension to postpone the beginning of classes to the third week of September.
Under his proposal, teachers and other staff members — who would begin their work year much earlier than students — would receive up to 10 days of training to ensure their familiarity with a plethora of modified school policies and COVID-19 prevention rules.
The school board voiced no opposition to the delayed start, but members like Dr. John Wells empathized the revised calendar should be finalized and voted upon as soon as possible. According to Wells, families deserve as much notice as possible about the resumption of classes so parents can finalize their own work and home routines.
"It's critical we let people know when we're starting as soon as we know. That [decision] should probably precede [our decision of what school reopening model will be utilized]," said Wells. "It's critical for this community, because they'll have to do all that other planning [based upon the reopening format we select]."
Unlike other aspects of school operations that remain under the superintendent's purview, the School Committee retains the exclusive authority to set and amend the calendar. It is likely the full board will be asked to sanction the delayed start of classes at a meeting tentatively scheduled for Aug. 6.
Complicating an already chaotic reopening process, as the district technically still hasn't determined whether to allow students back in schools this fall, the city's various educator unions will also have to agree to any major change to the calendar.
"It requires union negotiations, but it also relies upon a School Committee vote," Crowley explained.
This year, Labor Day falls late in the month on Sept. 7. Under the traditional school calendar, Woburn's teachers would return to work on Tuesday, Sept. 8, while students would head back to class two days later on Sept. 10.
For well over a decade now, the School Committee has aimed to join the majority of other school districts across the state that have transitioned to a pre-Labor Day start of classes. Proponents of the change argue the earlier start will ensure Woburn's students don't fall behind by starting later than children in surrounding towns.
However, with the COVID-19 crisis and continued debate over what public education will look like next September, most cities and towns across the state are unlikely to begin school this year before the national holiday. Instead teachers in neighboring towns are likely to report to their respective buildings for the training that would in Woburn begin after Labor Day.
The Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has instructed all school districts to plan on beginning classroom instruction by no later than Sept. 16.
However, according to Crowley, communities like Woburn can petition for a waiver to delay school openings up to 10 days after the deadline.
According to Crowley, he believes its critical for Woburn to seek such a waiver, because should the community revert to a preferred hybrid reopening model, school employees will be required to adhere to a number of new policies and protocols, such as:
• Compliance and disciplinary policies around a mandatory mask or facial covering order for all staff and students in Grade 2 and above;
• Protocols on separating pupils with COVID-19 like symptoms from their peers and ensuring they are sent to special isolation rooms within each building;
• New procedures around scheduling special education placement assessments, team meetings, and setting-up individualized education plan (IEP) discussions;
• Modifications to the district's attendance policies (as extended absences from the classroom might be due to new COVID-19 cases);
• Rules around employee symptom monitoring, testing requirements,and contract-tracing and isolation/quarantine regulations;
• Classroom social-distancing and assigned seating rules, personal protective equipment requirements, and new protocols regarding opening and closing windows within classrooms;
• and how classroom lesson plans and instruction approaches might change as district officials highlight core curriculum concepts to focus upon during an abbreviated learning year.
To ensure districts are spending an appropriate number of time at the beginning of the year for professional development and other COVID-19 preps, the state has agreed to shorten its 180-day school year requirement to 170 days.
In addition to loosening that standard, DESE has also announced that time-on-learning or minimum classroom instruction thresholds have been decreased from 990 to 935 hours for high school pupils and from 900 to 850 hours for all other children.
According to the superintendent, in light of those changes, Woburn does not risk running afoul of time-on-learning requirements by delaying the start of classes until late September. He also pointed out that under the hybrid and remote learning reopening models, the city during the 2020-2021 school year will not have snow days — as all pupils will instead be directed to partake in at-home learning sessions.