Photo: Burbank Elementary School
The doors will be opening at Belmont’s six public schools in approximately 45 days and according to the educators in charge, the hows and whys of beginning the new school year remain, in two words, quite fluid.
With the COVID-19 pandemic in the US continuing unabated, the idea that simply ringing the bell and teachers welcoming school children into the building is a faded memory.
“These are going to be late decisions. These are going to be hard decisions,” said School Superintendent John Phelan at last week’s Belmont School Committee meeting.
Interest on how learning will take place in Belmont is sky high. A parents survey sent out last month by the school district had 880 respondents with 2,100 comments. And more than 100 residents swore off a beautiful summer afternoon to attend the remote committee meeting on Wednesday, July 16.
Opening day planning by the Belmont School District is about a third of the way through a feasibility study that will be sent to the state by Aug. 10 that will determine which of three models – in person, hybrid and remote – will use when the student’s first day of the 2020-1 school terms begins on Wednesday, Sept. 3.
While many parents and students can’t wait to have all students go back to a “regular school year,” more recently say they are “very nervous” about returning, said Phelan.
But as of mid-July, Phelan said all three options remain in the running. And “it’s very clear to us … that the year that we face in ’20/21 could quite frankly involve all three models,” said Phelan.
A June parents survey found that 70 percent of residents would prefer the traditional in-person school opening, many of those same residents also acknowledge that a full-day education is not be in the cards come the fall.
Since receiving the state’s guidelines on reopening schools on June 25, each principal created a master schedule – class and teaching and student – for in-person schooling with all the state restrictions including three to six feet social distancing, moving furniture, providing space for teachers, and how to create lunchroom distancing.
While telling the school committee he has not discounted any of the three options, Phelan did say that due to the district’s over-enrollment – accepting between 700-800 students in the district over the past five years – and limited class space, attempting to fit all students into the building under the state’s social distancing limitations and other restrictions would be “very challenging.”
“The class sizes just don’t fit [an in-person opening],” said Phelan.
The space constraints of the in-person option is leading the district to focus its efforts on a hybrid plan in which half of the students will attend school while the other half are schooled remotely in a digital classroom setting.
In a hybrid option, it’s easier to achieve social distancing since only half the number of pupils are in the building, which allows for better circulation of students between classes and airflow. The district has also purchased $200,000 of personal protection equipment for teachers and staff when schools are opened.
Sometime in the week ahead, a decision on which hybrid schedule will be used; one which students alternate days in school versus a week in school and a week at home. In the parent’s survey, both schedules were equally supported by parents.
With the likelihood the remote option will be used, the district is distributing computers or tablets to all students to allow for true synchronous learning which will allow for students and teachers to collaborate and learn in real time in virtual classrooms. A major complaint from parents when the district shut down in mid-March during the initial wave of the coronavirus was that students were unable to interact with classmates and teachers, which Phelan attributed to a lack of computers to each pupil.
When the doors do open, the first few days could be for “teachers only” so they can prepare rooms for the new health protocols, accommodate social distancing requirements and to set up new technical equipment.
By Aug. 10, the district must pick one of the three options and get ready to move forward but there remains plenty of unknowns that haven’t been addressed by the state such as the use of buses, utilize outdoors and large indoor space such as cafeteria or gymnasium.
And the district will need the help from volunteers in Belmont such as the PTOs and PTAs, the Foundation for Belmont Education and the various Friends groups to assist in material and educational needs.
“As the Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley has said to all the superintendents … is we need to be flexible,” said Phelan.
“So we’re trying to plan flexibly in where we’re trying to communicate with our community as well as we can so when we get back to making decisions in August that people are up to date and feel like we’re making decisions … preparing for a safe entry to school.”