TEWKSBURY — On August 5, the Tewksbury School Committee held a 3 hour and 45 minute workshop via videoconference with parents, teachers, administrators, and students to share information about potential reopening options and to field stakeholder concerns and questions.
Chairman Keith Sullivan reminded viewers that the district is still working on the specifics, and will have to submit their three plans to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Superintendent Chris Malone explained that reopening plans were underway in April, and the district has been looking at public health and DESE guidelines on how to ready buildings for students and staff in the fall.
Malone said that major challenges have included difficulties with safe spacing, accommodating high risk students, and reconciling differences in opinion from teachers and parents. The district put together a reopening task force of administrators, principals, parents, town officials, and representatives from each union.
Assistant superintendent Brenda Regan explained that the district’s Comprehensive Reopening Plan must include an outline for all three models of learning — in-person, hybrid, or remote — and the whole plan must be approved by the School Committee. The district needs to be able to pivot to any of the three models at any time, but the committee will be voting to select one model to start the school year.
Regan also reviewed DESE guidance and classroom expectations. Students and teachers in all grades, including preschool, will be required to wear masks or adequate face coverings; during mask breaks, students will be spaced at least six feet apart; and the district will be providing transparent masks for some students and staff.
Teachers will have six feet of instructional area to themselves. In hallways, cafeterias, and all public areas students will be spaced six feet apart, and during lunch, students will all face forward while eating.
The district will be using masks, hygiene education, distancing, and self-screening to prevent community spread. A minimum of 3-6 feet of distancing is required for all learning models, and the district has purchased new hand sanitizing stations for all schools.
The slide presentation shared onscreen showed images of what distanced desks in classrooms at different schools would look like, and showed calculations for the maximum number of desks that could be accommodated at either three or six foot spacing.
As students need to be six feet apart to eat, Regan noted that extra lunch blocks would be needed and more cleaning staff required to keep up.
Malone said that appropriate distancing on buses would lead to a “substantial decrease in capacity” in transportation. All students will be required to wear masks on the bus; regular cleaning will occur; and the district may assign students to specific seats.
If all students were to return to in-person education at once, more buses would be needed. The district may also explore hiring monitors to supervise mask wearing and student distancing.
Regan reviewed the results of an email survey sent to families and teachers. Roughly 40 percent of parents preferred an all in-person model, 41 percent preferred a hybrid model, and 18 percent preferred a remote model. Only 10.7 percent of teachers preferred an all in-person model, while 38.3 percent preferred a hybrid model and 51 percent preferred a remote model.
The all in-person model would be a full school day following as regular a daily schedule as possible, with all able students and teachers in person with full health and safety precautions implemented.
Regan listed some benefits and concerns with the model. Parents would be able to return to work; students and teachers could access school resources such as labs and technology; students could receive school support and have access to meals; and they would be able to be in a different environment than their homes.
However, an increased number of students and families would be exposed to the virus; students would need to become familiar with restrictions and hygiene procedures; transportation costs will increase; teaching and learning will be dramatically different than before; and students will not be able to socialize in unstructured spaces such as the lunchroom.
The hybrid model would be a full school day, with students learning in person part-time and remote part-time. Classes will be split into two cohorts, consisting of approximately half the class. Students will be distanced by six feet with all health and safety precautions implemented in the classroom. Teachers will teach from the classroom all day. Daily schedules will need to account for flexibility for each group of students daily.
“Statistically, this was very attractive to our parents... and our teachers,” said Regan.
Regan shared some sample schedules, wherein the cohorts will switch on and off for in-person instruction. For example, one week, Group A will attend in-person Monday and Tuesday while Group B is remote, and Group B will attend in-person Thursday and Friday while Group A is remote; the district is suggesting that all students learn remotely on Wednesday to allow for intensive cleaning of schools before the next group attends in-person.
Benefits include lessened exposure to the virus with fewer students and lessened contact tracing; more feasible spacing in classrooms and transportation; and the opportunity for enhanced cleaning.
Concerns include childcare and splitting up siblings (the district will work to keep siblings in the same cohort); teachers dividing their time and attention between in-person and remote cohorts simultaneously; increased cleaning and food services personnel and additional lunch blocks for distanced lunches; and changes to traditional teaching and learning.
If a parent decides fully remote learning is best for their family in the hybrid or in-person model, they may choose the remote learning academy; it is a full day of school for students and attendance is taken. Most learning is asynchronous but will have teacher contact.
Students may be ineligible to participate in MIAA sports and extracurricular activities, and requests to come back to in-person learning will be reviewed at the end of quarterly sessions.
The district’s remote learning model would require students to be in a fully remote, full day learning situation. Attendance will be taken and courses will be graded. There will be synchronous and asynchronous learning. The model will allow a full day of schools with no exposure to the virus at school, no masks during the school day, and fewer restrictions, allowing medically vulnerable students and families to learn in a remote environment.
However, students will be exposed to extended screen time; parents may lack childcare or students may be disengaged; some students need extensive parental support and technology; and high-needs students cannot access services in person.
“We want this learning to be more enhanced than what it was before,” said Regan.
The district will prioritize in-person services for students with complex and significant needs, as well as vulnerable populations, including English language learners, homeless and foster students, and students on 504 plans.
Malone noted that “everybody will be enforcing mask usage — parents, staff. We’re certainly committed to making sure all students have a mask on at all times. We will be in an environment where there will be students and possible staff members who are unable to wear a mask, and we’re going to have to support that within our community and utilize appropriate distancing protocols. If we have a student who is refusing to wear a mask then we’ll make every effort to assist them, but at some point they may need to move to a remote learning environment if they are unable to wear a mask.”
Malone also mentioned working with staff on upcoming professional development days to help teachers understand and enforce public health requirements and in turn, help students become acclimated to the new climate. The district will not be running its own testing.
Courses may require additional safety, including the arts, music education, and physical education. Increased respiration and shared equipment have led DESE to recommend these classes take place fully or partially online. An MIAA decision about fall sports is expected mid-September. Extracurricular activities will be considered depending on the model the district chooses.
“Our curriculum requires technology today for all our students and teachers,” said Regan.
Students will have the opportunity to borrow a Chromebook from the district for use at home in the hybrid or remote models.
Malone reviewed different isolation and quarantine scenarios for students and staff who are symptomatic, test positive, or are presumed positive. Students who are required to quarantine will continue remote learning at home. Specific information about positive cases will not be released to the public, but a number of cases in a building will cause the district to reassess in-person instruction with town nurse Urvi Agarwalla.
“Some of these scenarios are very clear, but we may run into situations we haven’t even thought of,” said Malone.
Malone spoke about HVAC units and issues for the different buildings in order to ensure students are breathing fresh air. Cleaning and disinfecting protocols will be implemented continuously throughout the day, and enhanced and emergency response cleaning plans are in place. The district will be using EPA registered, CDC approved products, and vendors may be brought in for major cleaning projects. The district also provided links to the different state and federal guidance used in developing plans, as well as the results of district surveys.
The committee took calls from the public. Resident Karla Branchaud asked the committee how a hybrid schedule would work at the high school where each student has an individual schedule.
Regan mentioned different ways of splitting classes, including dividing alphabetically by last name or geographically by street number.
Another parent asked why the district couldn’t cut costs by testing all students and allowing them to go to school as normal with good hygiene practices. Malone said that the district cannot control out-of-school activity for students and staff, and varying levels of exposure to parents and friends at home means that tracking exposure students have is difficult.
Town nurse Urvi Agarwalla said, “When you test somebody, you’re just getting a snapshot of that moment in time. As we know, it can be up to a two week incubation period for someone to develop illness. Just because you got tested yesterday and you got a negative, that does not guarantee that if you get tested today, you will still be negative, because there could have been an exposure in the last two weeks... depending on viral load. [With testing] you can remove positives from the general population to stop the spread, but it’s not 100 percent.”
A resident asked how the district would handle fire and active shooter drills. Malone said that drills will look similar to the past but will take social distancing into account. The district has video resources for classes to view, but Malone asserted that students will know what to do in an actual emergency: “You would certainly move and do what you have to do regardless of social distancing” he said.
Tewksbury teacher Bailey Mahoney asked about a lack of substitutes available in the district, especially when some teachers may get sick or take leave.
Malone said, “Staffing is an issue no matter which model you talk about,” noting that teachers may be able to work remotely instead of taking a leave if they have health concerns.
A caller asked Malone about personal protective equipment for teachers. Malone explained that the district is following Department of Public Health and CDC guidance on the correct PPE to purchase. In addition, distancing measures will be implemented, and face shields may be used in tandem with masks for some people.
Other residents asked questions about air filtration systems, availability of school counselors and therapists, and combatting educator burnout.
Malone responded to a question about the school budget, saying that the town has received some grant money, but every model will have an impact on the budget. He also noted that teachers will be doing remote learning training for students and families to prepare them for the year. Students will learn skills and strategies to be remote learners, and teachers will encourage families to help students to get used to wearing a mask for extended periods of time.
The School Committee will approve the three plans as a set to submit to DESE. Administrators and committee members will need to meet with employee groups to discuss feasible options and details of the plans.