Breaking: Belmont Preparing For April Return Of Full-Time In-Person Classes For Elementary Students

Photo: Belmont will offer full-time learning for K-5 in April

The Belmont School District will announce next month two learning options for its youngest students one of which will be full-time, in-person learning beginning in April, according to a press release from Belmont Superintendent John Phelan released on Friday, Feb. 26.

The statement marks the first time the district has announced it would move to all-day in-person learning during the current school year.

Yet still to be answered as the district heads to a return of “normal” school days are issues that have existed since the summer: the existing space limitations at the four elementary schools and the need to negotiate all changes of staffing levels and scheduling with the teachers union.

The impetus for the move came as the state is forcing Belmont’s – and many other school districts – hand when Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley announced Tuesday, Feb. 23 he will ask the DESE Board to vote on March 22 on giving him the authority to eliminate all hybrid learning options in the elementary grades statewide.

Belmont is currently working in separate hybrid programs for elementary, middle and high schools.

“With COVID cases and hospitalizations continuing to decline and vaccines well underway, it is time to set our sights on eliminating remote learning by April, starting with elementary schools,” said Gov. Charlie Baker at a news conference on Tuesday.

If the board OKs the authorization, Phelan said Riley will then direct districts to provide elementary school students with one of two learning models: full in-person or a return to or continuation of remote learning. 

Riley said his goal is to require all districts starting on Monday, April 5 to have an in-person, full-time option for students in kindergarten through 5th grade.

In his response to Riley’s announcement, Phelan said Belmont is ahead of where the state stands in moving towards in-person reopening for all students, pointing to the recently formed Return to In-Person Learning Working Group (RIPLWG) with its “goal of providing more in-school time for students who want it.”

“Because Commissioner Riley’s goal of increasing live instructional time for students is very much in line with our own goals, we will not wait until March 22 to begin the important work of considering the implications of this change,” said Phelan.

“We will continue to plan thoughtfully and thoroughly so that we are ready to adjust to any changes that may be mandated,” said Phelan. “We await the Commissioner’s plan and updated guidance to ensure our work is directed toward the intended goal.”

As soon as the district gets a clearer picture of what the two models will look like in Belmont, it will survey families “so you can make an informed decision” on which plan to accept. The survey will also be determining staffing levels in the schools and remote.

“It is important that families have a full picture of what either model will be before committing,” said Phelan.

That process begins next week as “[w]e intend to be very public and transparent about our work, and will share all of the materials and data we are using with the entire community,” said Phelan. Those resources will include classroom enrollment data, room capacity measurements, and other information, most of which can be found on the Return to In-Person Learning webpage.

Phelan said the next communication with the community will be on Tuesday, March 1, after the next RIPLWG meeting.

“There will be many details to come in the weeks to follow that we will need to discuss and operationalize for this next step to take place successfully,” said Phelan.

But there remain several questions that have been left unanswered. The first that has plagued the district is the lack of space in the four elementary schools to provide 6-feet social distancing to allow the full capacity of students to attend. There is also the issue of incorporating one grade at the Chenery Middle School into the full-time schedule. Along with expected expenses is the knowledge that all significant changes the district will need to put forth to accomplish the mandate are required to take to collective bargaining with the Belmont Education Association, the local teachers union. It is not known if Riley has the ability to waive state labor laws when he sets forth his agenda.

At this time, Phelan said he is moving towards the goal of in-class learning.

“The Belmont Public Schools is committed to more in-person learning for students, whether the mandate is handed down or not. We will continue working to provide greater in-school time to those students who want it, while also maintaining a remote option,” said Phelan.

“We will do this work as we always do: thoroughly, thoughtfully, and in conjunction with all stakeholders – students, families, and educators,” said Phelan.

With State’s Guidance In Hand, Belmont Schools Writing An Opening Day Scenario

Photo: The cover page of the Massachusetts DESE guide to reopening public schools in September.

With guidance from the state now in hand, the Belmont School District is beginning in earnest to put together a blueprint for opening the school year in less than two months.

But no one should believe this will be an easy process in a world dominated by COVID-19.

“This will be unlike any September that school systems have ever faced with trying to open school under a pandemic,” said School Superintendent John Phelan at a virtual Zoom meeting of the Belmont School Committee recently.

Belmont joins districts and systems across the country determine the optimum playbook to follow in the coming school year, as “families are ready to fall into that familiar ‘back to school’ routine where parents go back to work and students are in front of teaching and developing their own social emotional growth and development,” said Phelan.

The district with guidance from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) is currently creating three learning options for educating students in the 2020-1 school year:

  • a traditional in-school model,
  • the hybrid system which students participate both in class and learn from home, and
  • an on-line remote setup similar to the final weeks of the previous school year.

For Phelan, it doesn’t appear Belmont will be picking one option and sticking with it for for the 2020-1 school year.

“It is our potential expectation that next school year we could run the range of having all three of those option be put in play,” said Phelan, attempting to service the district’s pupils well “but also with safety in mind.”

One of the first things principals, educators and staff are doing during this feasibility phase is measuring every available inch of space in the district’s six schools to determine how many students can be safely taught in each building which will decide which option(s) the district will use to educate its approximate 5,000 students beginning Sept. 2.

“We will set up a schedule where we could try to limit contact between students,” said Phelan as the schools prioritize in-person learning.

The answer is far from certain. “Can it be done with existing staff, do we need more space, will extra buses be needed, can students pass safely between classes, where will lunch take place?”

“Are our class sizes just too big with 26 students in a classroom and still keep the minimum separation in social distancing?” said Phelan.

As the traditional opening is being tested, the district will also provide a more detailed blueprint on a hybrid option with a remote learning portion.

After the three models are completed in the next weeks, the district will return to the state “the data with our assessment” of the options, showing DESE the challenges and pointing out the resources the schools will need to mitigate those challenges” as well as demonstrating the situations that can’t be resolved.

An example is that a teacher with 29-33 students can not run a class under the regulations imposed by the state. “[the class] would need to be split up and a teacher brought in. if not that’s an un-achievable challenge,” said Phelan.

The Superintendent revealed that the state said ‘out loud’ there could be dollars for each district to find added classroom space and to purchase equipment so each student can be equip with computer for hybrid or remote learning.

But Phelan said he found it “concerning” that funds can not be used to add personnel to assist in educating students.