TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury School Committee met for a special meeting on March 3, 2021, virtually via WebEx.
The committee first discussed opening negotiations up for more in-person learning time with the Tewksbury Teachers Association by allowing the public to view the process.
“We believe that from tonight’s meeting and the planning that we’ve done that it’s important that we’ve got the staff members’ input on all the aspects of students returning to school,” said superintendent Chris Malone.
Malone gave a presentation updating the committee on current plans for increasing in-person learning time. His goals included presenting an initial plan for a phased-in approach and exploring stakeholder input.
Malone outlined current concerns and parent and family needs, including childcare and social emotional development. Administrators collected information and data from the district’s reopening task force, parent and student surveys, TTA negotiations, neighboring district collaborations, and DESE and state guidance on more in-person time.
Malone added that the district is not looking at any in-person models that would impact the current schedule or format of the Remote Learning Academy, but will assess the potential for RLA students to return to school at the start of the fourth quarter.
He emphasized that the priority is to add more in-person time for current in-person hybrid students. Malone highlighted current challenges the district faces, including staffing shortages related to ADA and childcare accommodations, as well as RLA staffing.
The district is currently employing coronavirus mitigation strategies, including PPE, air purifiers, and cleaning protocols. Malone said that in the next few weeks and months, the district will be experimenting with pooled surveillance testing, outdoor spaces for lessons and lunch, and enhanced cleaning methods.
Malone said that based on national health guidance, the district’s mitigation strategies and low community transmission will allow for three foot distancing between desks.
Assistant superintendent Brenda Theriault-Regan added that all safety protocols will still be enforced regardless of distancing, including mask-wearing, hand hygiene, and enhanced cleanings.
Malone explained that lunch continues to be an issue in increasing in-person time. He expects the grab-and-go lunch model to continue as it provides greater flexibility for staff and students.
Additional lunch blocks or locations may be added to the schedule. Malone emphasized concerns regarding students having their masks down to eat, adding that in-person lunch would require six foot distancing, and prioritized teacher and aide safety while monitoring maskless students.
Theriault-Regan outlined the district’s proposed Phase 1 plan. All hybrid students in cohorts in grades K-6 would return to school five days per week on or about April 5 through early May, attending in-person for the 4-hour cohort day. On or about April 12 through mid-May, all grade 7-12 students would return in-person for the 4-hour cohort day.
Theriault-Regan explained the Phase 1 plan will allow for gradual transitions, bringing younger students back in first, and said that the timeline will give the district flexibility to fine-tune details before Phase 2.
Phase 2, starting on May 3 for all K-6 students, would see students in school five days a week for a longer (if not full) school day. Students in grades 7-12 would return for a longer day on May 10.
Malone added that if coronavirus conditions change, the district has the ability to pivot back to a previous model with great ease. He thanked district teachers and staff for their support and hard work.
The committee thanked administrators for the presentation and hard work. The committee took comments from residents through a new call-in system. Some read statements, while others asked questions.
Many parents expressed support for increasing in-person learning time. One parent asked about using other spaces such as gyms and cafeterias as classrooms. Malone said that it was definitely a possibility, adding that the district is planning to rent outdoor tents for the warm weather.
He noted that all spaces need to be disinfected between uses, but “almost any creative option as far as additional spacing will be used.”
Another parent asked about summer classes.
“We do believe we’ll have opportunities over the summer both to fill in some gaps and ramp up students for the following fall,” responded Malone.
He also said that the district is hoping to use in-person learning time to understand where the gaps are.
Other residents asked about accommodations for special education students, mental health and desk spacing. A parent asked why children can have close contact in sports but not in schools.
Malone explained that the two cases are governed by different bodies: school guidance is set by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, while sports guidance is determined by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA).
The committee thanked residents for their participation and expressed their hope for a successful transition to increased in-person learning time. Members also acknowledged Malone, Theriault-Regan, teachers, and staff for their cooperation and hard work in the process.
The next meeting is scheduled for March 10, 2021. Residents wishing to comment may find the call-in number on the meeting agenda as posted on the town website. The meeting may be viewed on Comcast channel 27 and Verizon channel 34.