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'Like A Huge Jigsaw Puzzle': School Leaders Struggle To Make Reopening Plans03:33
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Rows of school buses parked on Pleasant Street in Belmont, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Rows of school buses parked on Pleasant Street in Belmont, Mass. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Here’s one thing that's certain about the new school year: in-person learning is going to look a lot different. Face masks will be the new norm, same with hand sanitizer. Class sizes will likely be smaller. For summer school no more than 10 kids are allowed in each room.

"It’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle," said Robert Tremblay the superintendent at Framingham Public Schools. "We’re not equipped to have six foot space between desks and we don’t have staffing to have class sizes limited."

Tremblay has been trying to put the pieces of this puzzle together for about the last month. The process has been frustrating and he’s starting to face pressure from parents.

"We don’t have the answers and we’re just keeping them to ourselves. We simply don’t have the answers because we’re working literally in the dark here," Tremblay added.

And lot of school leaders feel the same way. A state working group is drafting more guidance to help with the planning. That’s expected in the coming weeks. But many school leaders are worried that even with state recommendations and requirements, they won’t have enough time or money to put them in place.

"Ultimately the decision is going to be district by district to open physically or close physically," said Beth Kontos, the president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Federation of Teachers and one of the working group members. "Which is OK. It’s just that our districts are working with totally different resources."

Kontos explained that the guidance will be very very high level, more like over arching guidelines. Which makes her worry that some districts will be hoping for more detail than the group will be providing.

State officials won’t comment with more information. A spokeswoman said, “The guidance will speak for itself when it’s released.”

A lot of school leaders are also worried that they won’t have a lot of time left to finalize their plans if they wait too much longer for state guidance. Districts, for example, have to have time to negotiate new working conditions with staff unions.

"Just waiting for them to give guidance, I think we would leave ourselves flat footed," said Owen Stearns the CEO of the Excel Academy Charter Schools.

He’s also getting a head start on planning — even though he runs the risk that state guidelines could ultimately contradict his plans.

Like a lot of schools, Stearns is preparing for two possible scenarios. One, is to continue 100% remote learning. The other is a hybrid model where groups of students rotate in and out.

"That, in many ways, is the more complicated world to envision operationally," he said. "And yet we know that being in person is incredibly valuable."

But even if there is value for students, Sterns and many other school leaders worry they won’t be able to afford it.

National estimates suggest that following federal health guidelines for PPE, transportation and extra staffing could cost schools upwards of $1.8 million, according to the Association of School Business Officials International.

But while it’s helpful to have estimates like this, superintendents and charter school leaders still don't know what kind of budget they'll be working with next year.

"So when I say 'How do we reduce class size?' When I’m leaning toward a solution that involves increasing staff, I don’t know that I’ll be able to do that," said Dianne Kelly, the Revere Public Schools Superintendent.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation is forecasting a $6 billion decrease in state tax revenue for FY2021.

While Kelly is bracing herself for budget cuts, she's basing her reopening plan on last year's budget, for now. So far, she hasn’t found a way to make it work without a deficit. She's hoping the federal CARES Act will provide some help with extra pandemic related expenses. If not, Kelly says the next puzzle she’ll need to solve is what to cut.

This segment aired on June 10, 2020.

Carrie Jung Twitter Reporter, Edify
Carrie is a senior education reporter with Edify.

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