WOBURN - The city’s School Committee this week will begin considering the obstacles standing in the way to a return to a traditional in-person learning format at local schools.

The potential return to a full-time classroom instruction model is listed as an agenda item for the education board’s regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday night.

The meeting, which will be held at the Joyce Middle School rather than in a virtual format, is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. Because of continued state restrictions on in-person gatherings, the School Committee is restricting public access to the meeting and is encouraging citizens to tune into a live broadcast of the discussion by the Woburn Public Media Center via its YouTube website.

Though the School Committee over the past year has had brief exchanges with central office administrators about reverting back to a traditional learning model, this week’s discussion is planned after state leaders suggested communities might be required to return to a five-day classroom model later this spring.

Specifically, in an announcement made last Tuesday, State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley unveiled a plan to return elementary school students back to their classrooms on a full-time basis in April.

Riley, who heads up the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), plans to ask DESE’s education board sometime this month for the authority to mandate cities and towns to make the reversion back to a five-day classroom model.

Meanwhile, Mass. Governor Charles Baker during a press conference last week endorsed the education commissioner’s proposal based upon the state’s latest COVID-19 surveillance metrics.

“With COVID cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline and vaccines well underway, it is time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April," Baker said.

Under Riley’s proposal, some specifics of which he outlined in a Feb. 23 memo to area superintendents, he will try to force districts to switch back to a full in-person format by eliminating waivers that allow district’s to count time spent in remote classrooms towards the state’s time-on-learning requirements.

The switchover would begin with elementary school pupils in April and then be extended to include middle school and high school populations.

Last summer, as school districts were asked to prepare remote or hybrid learning plans for the start of the 2020/2021 school year, DESE officials announced remote instruction in virtual classrooms would count towards the mandatory time-on-learning standards.

Riley suggests that some waivers will be granted to school districts that are unable to make the full switch back to a traditional model due to extraordinary circumstances.

“Looking ahead, with the extensive mitigation strategies in place and as state health metrics continue to improve, at some point districts and schools will need to shift away from remote and hybrid learning models and return to a traditional in-person educational format,” wrote Riley in his Feb. 23 memo, which also points to research that indicates students are suffering mental and emotional harm due to isolation away from peers and teachers.

“At today’s meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), I indicated that in March, I will request that the Board grant me the authority to determine when hybrid and remote models no longer count for learning hours,” he added. “If granted this authority, I will pursue a phased approach to returning students to the classroom, working closely with state health officials and medical experts. Ideally, my initial goal is to bring all elementary school students back to in-person learning five days a week this April.”

Parents across the state will reportedly be allowed to keep their children enrolled within optional full-remote programs for the 2020/2021 school year under Riley’s plan.

Woburn’s School Committee, which did briefly explore a full five-day learning format while studying various models last summer, rejected the model after discovering the district will be unable to maintain a six-foot separation between students and teachers in classrooms and other academic spaces under such a scenario.

State education officials last summer had authorized school districts to space desks and other classroom furniture with as little as three feet of separation.

However, Woburn’s School Committee, noting CDC guidance recommended a six-foot distance, rejected that waiver. The CDC has been asked to revisit the six-foot recommendation as it pertains to school environments, but thus far the federal agency has not changed its standard.

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