By Susan Gonsalves, Liz Nolan, Melanie Petrucci
Region – Local schools finalized plans to reopen for full-time in-person learning, this month, after a year of COVID-19 shutdowns.
A major and controversial conversation in school districts across the state, this comes after a direct order from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education effectively rescinding support for the kinds of hybrid learning models that became popular during the last six months of education during the pandemic.
Large student body poses challenges in Westborough
Addressing the news with its School Committee, Westborough officials said they were excited to reopen. A large student body at Gibbons Middle School, though, also forced administrators to get creative with plans.
Now, when students return to class, next month, they may actually be headed to “swing spaces” such as their school’s library, gym or auditorium. Westborough has also spent roughly $100,000 on outdoor tents alone to help space students apart to continue to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.
To further space out the school community, select teachers who will continue instructing remotely after this transition will do so from home instead of from the school itself, as they currently do. Those teachers will support a total of 168 students who will remain in the remote program, school officials said.
“Everybody is game to make this happen and we have confidence implementation will go well,” Superintendent Amber Bock said.
Northborough/Southborough schools build on mandate, open Algonquin ahead of schedule
As Westborough feels confidence, officials in Northborough are taking a bold step to reopen Algonquin High School.
Indeed, while the state is requiring elementary school students to be back in class by April 5, and while it has recently announced middle schools must return by April 26, it has put no such restriction on hybrid learning at high schools.
Algonquin and district officials alike, though, say they’re secure enough in their safety protocols to be “proactive” in this case.
Superintendent Greg Martineau, more so, is specifically “optimistic that by mid-May all of our educators who want the opportunity to be vaccinated will have had the opportunity.”
On the student side of things, new state regulations say individuals ages 16+ will be eligible for vaccinations on Monday, April 19. That will give some students the opportunity to be vaccinated before their current learning model changes.
Shrewsbury Schools survey parents on reopening plans
With vaccines proliferating and neighboring communities building their interpretations of the state’s latest edict, Shrewsbury recently sent a survey to families and staff to determine if families in the all-remote (Cohort D) wished to return to full in-person learning or continue in an all-remote format for the remainder of the school year.
Of the 1,806 students in Cohort D, 294 indicated that they would return to school, officials say.
Even though that figure is low, district leaders added, it still provides logistical challenges similar in some respects to the ones faced by leaders of Westborough’s Gibbons school.
Reorganizing room spaces to safely fit students, the district will actually need to contract with a moving company to remove furniture from classrooms and make room for more desks.
Questions remain across region
Schools will reopen throughout April.
If they don’t, the state has said, they could face punitive cuts in annual budgetary aid.
As administrators say, further, that while they’re excited about having students back under their roofs full-time, they’re simultaneously recognizing the gravity of this moment.
“I think there is some apprehension amongst kids,” Algonquin Principal Sean Bevan said as his district announced its plan. “…We will have to be really mindful that it will be a challenge for lots of people.”
He elaborated, saying, “They have not had a five-day school [week since March 2020]. It will be a lot of transition for many of our kids. As we do our dry logistical planning, we have to keep in mind the emotional needs of the kids.”