WOBURN - School Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley will tonight ask the school board to sanction a preliminary reopening plan detailed in a state-mandated study due to state education officials on Friday.
Though the School Committee decision is unlikely to be the final word on what the resumption of classes will look like in Woburn come September, tonight's vote will reflect what central office administrators believe is feasible for the district given operational restrictions being imposed upon educators due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
Ultimately, a final decision on school reopenings will be announced on or before Aug. 10, when Woburn will be required to send a final version of its three reopening plans to the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).
DESE officials, after consultations with public health officials about the status of the COVID-19 outbreak, are then expected to render its own decision as to whether a full resumption of classes is allowed.
Notably, tonight's School Committee meeting, to begin at 7:30 p.m. in the Joyce Middle School conference room, must be observed by the general public through a virtual broadcast being livestreamed via YouTube by the Woburn Public Media Center (WPMC).
Normally, such in-person attendance restrictions would be considered a violation of the state's Open Meeting Law, but under an executive order implemented by Governor Charles Baker, certain provisions of that statute have been suspended. Citizens interested in viewing the School Committee discussion live can do so by typing https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzTO-bWrkqqoPWxEoxKSx7w into a web browser.
Study and approval process
Towards the end of last school year, when Woburn wrapped up a mandatory months-long experiment with so-called remote or distance learning, the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) directed local authorities to prepare three plans for a September start of the 2020-2021 year.
All school districts across the state are required to submit draft versions of those three reopening proposals on Friday, and the reports must detail individual community plans for implementing the following:
• A full return to traditional face-to-face instruction models, which would require school officials to implement a multitude of COVID-19 prevention strategies like mandatory social-distancing and facial covering rules, caps on class sizes and large student body gatherings, and the introduction of cleaning and sanitation protocols;
• A resumption of the remote learning programs that were implemented in phases after all schools and universities were shuttered across the state in March;
• And a hybrid instruction approach that blends together elements of both remote learning and in-person classroom settings.
Earlier the month, Crowley advised the School Committee that the initial DESE report will by no means include an exhaustive list of the protocols and preventative procedures being implemented in Woburn under each model.
"It's not an exhaustive ask. They've asked us to continue working on these plans based upon continued guidance from DESE and to announce to the community by Aug. 10 what our [ultimate] plan for reopening will be," said Crowley.
Though the city's final decision is not expected until next month, the School Committee, in being asked to approve the preliminary plan tonight, will be endorsing a report that includes within a "preferred" reopening model for Woburn.
As part of that preference, central office administrators are expected to explain why that chosen model is the best fit.
Earlier this month, during a previous School Committee discussion about the initial DESE report deadline, the superintendent explained that principals and facilities department personnel have already been reviewing schematics and facility amenities to determine whether Woburn is equipped to handle a full resumption of classes.
Citing an example of the types of issues being worked out, Crowley explained that DESE guidelines — originally calling for the standard six-foot social distancing protocols called for by public health experts for much of the COVID-19 crisis — now reference a three-foot distance.
According to Crowley, while that halving of the social-distancing mandate allows Woburn to accommodate more pupils in each classroom, there are still many obstacles to overcome.
"It is feasible to have the majority of our students come back at three-feet. There are areas that are still going to pose issues, such as cafeterias, science labs, and some kindergarten classes that have tables [instead of desks]," he explained.
Some of the answers local residents can expect in the initial DESE report include:
• Key-findings about a facility feasibility study conducted by school officials in recent weeks and an explanation of how those limitations might impact the resumption of classes in September;
• The district's preferred reopening model for all three major classroom settings (elementary, middle, and high school classes;
• A summary of what each of the three models would look like if implemented in Woburn;
• and how special education, ESL/ELL, and economically disadvantaged pupils will be supported under each of the three options.