What will school look like in the fall? Districts prepare for multiple scenarios

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Allison LeClair, superintendent of Easthampton Public Schools. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • John Provost, superintendent of Northampton Public Schools. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2020 6:42:48 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton elementary school students could return to some form of in-person school in the fall, while secondary students may continue to do remote learning only. Another option: Elementary students might have four days of in-person school, and secondary students could go in one day each week.

These are the two potential ways to reconfigure schools in the fall that the School Committee asked Superintendent John Provost to look into from a list of 10 potential plans the district came up with, Provost said.

As the school year is ending, many students and families are wondering about what learning will look like in the fall. The short answer: Districts don’t yet know.

A team discussing school reopening plans meets daily on Zoom, Provost said. “At this point, thousands, easily thousands, of hours of staff time have been put into developing plans,” he said. “Many more thousands will have to be spent over the course of the summer.”

District leaders came up with 10 potential ways to configure schools in the fall — different combinations of remote learning and in-person school for different groups and grade levels, including one scenario in which the school year would begin in late September.

Other Valley school district leaders said they expect more specific reopening guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) soon. Some schools said they will make plans once that guidance is released.

A team including administrators and teachers in Hadley Public Schools decided that “the best use of our time would be to review the guidance when it was issued,” Superintendent Anne McKenzie said.

Easthampton Superintendent Allison LeClair echoed McKenzie and said she’s waiting for more state guidance, too. But “we anticipate, like Northampton and like other communities, that the options are pretty cut and dried. Either we will come back fully — if we’re able to,” she said, or, “the second option is some kind of hybrid model,” meaning students spend some time at home and in the classroom. “The third option is if we have to be completely remote again if the disease ramps up again.”

By the end of July, possibly sooner, Easthampton Public Schools will have a reopening plan to share with students and families, LeClair said.

Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris spoke at a School Committee meeting earlier this month about “de-densifying schools” with two potential models if schools resume with in-person classes in the fall. In one model, students would return to school in alternating smaller groups, possibly for in-school education two days a week, or every other day, or every other week. In another, elementary students would attend school five days a week, with some upper-grade elementary students possibly needing to have classes in a regional school building, middle or high school. This would mean middle and high school students would have enhanced remote learning plans.

“We will not have 2,600 students in our three districts in school at the same time in the fall,” Morris said. “It just can’t happen from a public health perspective.”

Outgoing Holyoke Public Schools superintendent and receiver Stephen Zrike did not reply to an inquiry from the Gazette by press time.

South Hadley school officials have discussed four possible scenarios for the next academic year, though interim Superintendent Diana Bonneville noted that the district will not have a definitive plan until DESE releases guidelines for reopening in the near future.

The four scenarios discussed so far include a plan for resumption of all-remote learning and three plans for reopening with “enhanced social distancing measures” in place.

Under current considerations, a remote semester would entail measures such a 1:1 Chromebook plan using CARES Act funding, the district paying for hotspots and vouchers, and continued meal distribution, with synchronous learning that students must attend for daily credit, according to plans released by the district.

In-person scenarios discussed could involve students attending school every three days; students attending in cycles of one week of in-person instruction followed by two-weeks of virtual learning; or students in preschool through sixth grade attending daily while Grades 7 through 12 learn remotely for the first 45 days of school.

Bonneville declined to speak further about the plans until the department releases its guidelines.

Back-to-school price tag

Bringing students back in the fall will mean new costs for districts. Personal protective equipment, transportation, disinfecting protocols, extra health and safety staffing as well as other pandemic-related costs will total about $1.8 million for a district with 3,659 students, or around $490 per student for the year, according to an estimate made by the School Superintendents Association and the Association of School Business Officials International. Provost said $490 per student is a good starting estimate, but it depends on which reopening model the district uses. Some funding the district received from the CARES Act could be put toward costs including PPE, he added.

“It’s going to take $240,000 to get us ready for the first 12 weeks of school in the fall,” Jill Conselino, nurse manager for Amherst Regional Schools, said at a meeting earlier this month. Supplies she has ordered include 750 gallons of hand sanitizer, 100,000 adult masks, 16,000 pediatric masks, 13,000 KN-95 masks, 10,000 isolation gowns and 20,000 pairs of gloves.

“We’re looking at ordering our PPE now so we can ensure we get it in,” LeClair said. The district is planning to buy it through DESE, which is working with vendors to help school districts order PPE and other safety supplies, according to a memo sent by DESE to school superintendents last week. “The state is being extremely helpful in this regard,” McKenzie said.

Transportation is yet another cost. “The initial guidance from the CDC is that we can’t have as many children on a bus. We’re waiting to see if state guidance changes that at all,” LeClair said. “We’re going to take a huge hit on that.”

Once school does begin, school leaders said they will need to get students up to speed and fill in the gaps in material they missed this spring.

“One of the things that we expect is that we’re going to have to do a great deal of remediation when students return,” Provost said. “We are planning to begin the year with a process of assessment to determine where the students are.”

With reporting from Scott Merzbach and Jacquelyn Voghel.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.
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