How To Reopen Schools This Fall

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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)

Schools across the commonwealth face a tough decision: what's the best way to start school in September? Remote? All in-person, or some combo of the two?

That means painful choices for students and their parents, too.

We take listener calls with WBUR Edify Editor Kathleen McNerney and Superintendent of Chelsea Public Schools Almi Abeyta.

On the feedback re-opening committees and districts are receiving from families: 

Kathleen McNerney: "I think there's a lot of threat and I think it's ... on all sides, really, from ... the re-opening committees and districts that are tasked with making these decisions and weighing this, as well as the parents and the teachers who are trying to plan. And I think everyone wants to figure out how to meet everybody's needs. There is no easy answer in a time like this ... I've been working on talking to a lot of different parents from different communities about their perspectives. Trust and communication seem to be playing a large role. Rich Barona of Lexington, [who] I spoke with, he has an incoming kindergartner and a second grader — five and seven years old. For him, he wants parents to have a choice to go fully back in person."

"At the same time, the teachers I've talked to, they do want to do their job at the same time, you know. But there's a public health crisis and information is still emerging — our understanding of the virus, how it spread, who is affected by it and ... who's at risk, who's at increased risk, who's at lower risk ... is hard to parse through. The Lexington School Committee votes tomorrow night. They did four different surveys of the parents ... A lot of these districts have been putting out surveys to try to get a read on what parents are feeling when it comes to reopening, what their needs are, what didn't work about remote learning that they could make better. In the most recent survey, [when] Lexington parents were asked about their return, about 63% showed an interest in remote and hybrid models and about 37% of families wanted a full return to school."

On the variety of back-to-school plans: 

McNerney: "They are varied, and I would say the vast majority seem to be falling under the hybrid model. The latest data that our team got from the state on Friday afternoon was showing that, by and large, the majority were going into hybrid with a few remote and a few in person. We started going through a handful, about two dozen of these plans. There are some districts that are trying to really give priority to full in-person learning for the students they feel need it the most. That would be younger kids. It's really hard to teach reading, for example, on Zoom or in a Google classroom. That would [include] kids with special education needs ... A lot of districts are giving parents [a] choice, but trying to give those students an option to come into the classroom to try to get those services that they really need that can't be delivered remotely ... A few, even though they they said hybrid, they're starting to switch to all remote. I think it's in line with what we're seeing of in terms of COVID cases ... A lot of teachers that I talked to on Friday and over the weekend said ... the governor said that groups should be scaled back from 100 to only allowing 50 people to meet in groups. Some teachers and parents were like, 'Well, if that's scaling back, shouldn't schools?' Because you're talking about getting hundreds of students and teachers into these buildings at a time."

On Chelsea's back-to-school plans: 

Almi Abeyta: "Well, right now, we complied with the Department of Education and we submitted our preliminary plans to do more in-person, hybrid and remote learning. We have a ... 4.93% positivity rate as of August 5. In light of that information, we have decided that we would start [with] remote learning in the fall with a phase-in. In Chelsea, we really have to monitor that percent positivity rate before we can open schools safely."

On the feedback Abeyta is receiving from Chelsea families: 

Abeyta: "Our parents were not knocking down doors for us to reopen schools. At least 47% have already, when we put out the option, chose an online remote learning option. What I found when we've been at the Chelsea Collaborative, working with our families and listening, is that because our families have had such close contact with COVID-19, whether it be a mother, whether it be an uncle, a grandma, a grandfather, the neighbor next door, because people have experienced that, they are ... afraid and they're not really wanting to be around a lot of people right now. What we're finding ... when I met with my parent advisory, ... I put the question, 'How are you willing to send your student to school?' One parent was like, 'Not until there's a vaccine. I would end up in the ICU for 11 weeks with COVID-19 and I'm not sending my child to school.'"

On the shift to reopening in-person learning: 

Abeyta: "My school committee is voting tomorrow and I've had to shift course and direction ... and propose a new recommendation that we have to start in the fall. We'll monitor the positivity rate, and I'm hoping maybe in October we can open, but even as we are in full remote learning. Because I am concerned about our students and I know that for many of our students, school is a safe place. We're going to experiment with some centers for online learning where students can ... come to the middle and the high schools and do their remote learning physically there if possible. We'll be socially distanced because some of our our students need a place that's safe, where we can plug them into services if they need it ... I do think it's important that we have heavy, heavy family and community engagement right up front. I want for every student to be able to meet his or her teacher, have a conversation [and] build those relationships, whether they can come in one on one and meet with a teacher, [even if] it's remote."

"We also learned a lot in the spring about remote learning ... We need to have more structure and we have to have more rigor and we need to be more organized about it, but the key thing that we've learned is that we have to communicate better with our families and with the teachers."

This segment aired on August 10, 2020.

Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Headshot of Kathleen McNerney

Kathleen McNerney Senior Producer / Editor, Edify
Kathleen McNerney was the senior producer/editor of Edify.


Headshot of Jamie Bologna

Jamie Bologna Senior Producer/Director, Radio Boston
Jamie Bologna was senior producer and director of Radio Boston.



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