Friday, July 12, 2024

School Committee member Fred Fantini, seen in January, says he’s not prepared to vote on current proposals to reopen campuses to students in the fall. (Photo: Derek Kouyoumjian)

The sheer amount of complicated information and the concerns of stakeholders made it impossible to vote yet on a model to reopen schools in the fall, many School Committee members said Tuesday.

It was the first meeting to discuss models for reopening amid Covid-19. Committee members are scheduled to vote on a preferred model this coming Tuesday.

“I don’t think I can vote next week,” said member Fred Fantini, who wanted to see more models than were shown. “I genuinely don’t think we have the staff, given day care needs and health care concerns.”

Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, who runs the committee, also said she needed more data, as well as more certainty around parts of the current proposals. And she noted that Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Education Association, said one-third of teachers his union had surveyed said they won’t return if the district adopts a suggested model that allows for 3 feet of social distance between students.

Committee members and the public also expressed concerns about racial and socioeconomic equity; mental health issues; transportation; testing; balancing the needs of student age groups and learning styles; how caregiver and educator voices can be brought into the discussion; the tension between city, state and federal guidelines; and how the district’s working groups and its Covid-19 task force will contribute to implementing a plan.

A town hall for more public comment was held Thursday.

Models for reopening

School district officials focused on two models for students up through grade 8, who would be split into three groups. Groups A and B would alternate in-class time with remote learning; there would be in-person classes all week for a Group C of high-needs students, such as English-language learners or those with disabilities.

Option 1 provides Groups A and B with two days of in-person instruction every week; Option 2 proposes that students have in-person classes every other day over a 10-day cycle.

The district already eliminated two proposed models: one splitting classes into a morning and afternoon rotation, because it increased coronavirus exposure risk and because the frequent transitions would take away from instructional time; and another that would have alternated a week of in-person classes with a week of remote learning, set aside because of the nine-day gap it required in face-to-face instruction.

Models for Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school are in development, with the current proposal bringing students back in two phases. The first phase has all students in school once a week; the second has first-year students attending in person full time; sophomores and juniors in school three times every two weeks; and seniors in twice weekly.

Salim said other models can be discussed.

“These are the possibilities so people can start to think about plans,” he said.

Caregiver choices: Remote or withdrawal

The school district promised a remote-only option for kids even if committee members do opt for an in-person or hybrid model. Families would commit to remote-only learning through December, with the ability to transfer in or out of a model – if capacity is available – until Sept. 30. After that, a transfer may be possible if there is exposure to Covid-19.

Salim noted that the remote option may be led by Cambridge or the state; district officials would bring the state’s model to the committee when more information was available. If the state’s remote learning model is adopted, it would be “largely asynchronous” but the district “would also look at ways of mobilizing some staff to be able to support students,” and “provide some level of coaching or tutoring.”

If parents withdraw a child from school, the student’s assigned seat will not be reserved for the following year. Caregivers would be able to apply for a student sabbatical, district chief operating officer Jim Maloney said.

“We do not have the capacity now to have several hundred students reject their seat and then get the same seat next year,” said Maloney, noting that while the School Committee could change the rules and vote to save seats, an influx of hundreds of additional students entering JK/K would skew the lottery and overwhelm the system.

State guidelines

State guidelines aim to have desks face in the same direction, spaced preferably 6 feet apart but down to as little as 3 feet apart; place students in small classes that remain together throughout the day; and limit class interaction so that if a student becomes ill, exposure to other students and teachers is limited, Salim said. Masks would be optional for JK/K and grade 1 and required for students in grade 2 and up, for whom face shields would be optional. Hand hygiene is a high priority, and isolation spaces are required to be set aside for students who show Covid-19 symptoms while on campus.

The guidelines do not require screening procedures for illness or recommend temperature checks or in-school testing. Siddiqui noted that while the state guidelines do not mandate routine testing, Cambridge partnered with the Broad Institute in April to test nursing home communities, and the city is exploring applying the same strategy to schools.

The district has 244 elementary and upper school classrooms available if a social distance of 3 feet is applied, Salim said, but 24 classrooms do not have enough space to maintain the 3 foot minimum distance. The district is exploring using libraries, art and music classrooms and other district space to accommodate students.

Expert advice

Three members of the district’s Covid-19 Task Force – Dr. Helen Jenkins of Boston University’s School of Public Health; Dr. Jill Crittenden of the McGovern Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Dr. Bradley Bernstein of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute – took committee member questions.

Vice chair Manikka Bowman asked how to reconcile the 3-foot minimum in the state guidelines with the 6 feet of social distance recommended by federal health officials.

Bernstein said in hospitals, where proper personal protective equipment is prioritized, a social distance of 3 feet is effective – and that can be duplicated in schools with low levels of community transmission, appropriate ventilation and good PPE.

The virus is spread when people exhale, and lives longer and spreads farther in dry air that is recirculated around a room, Crittenden said, so ventilation systems that scrub and humidify the air are important, and exposure risk decreases with the amount of time and distance from the source. (Maloney said the district is investing in air scrubbers, fans and carbon monoxide detectors, and ensuring that windows can be opened manually and training staff to monitor air quality.)

Considering models

Jenkins, in response to member David Weinstein asking if the alternating-weeks model is better, said while she believes it is a better model from an epidemiologist’s point of view, educator viewpoints that take the larger picture into account need to be considered as well.

Crittenden added that Option 2, with two days in school a week, would make contact cleaning easier and there would be more time for people to develop and spot symptoms, making it less likely they would spread infection.

Fantini had his own proposal: “Right now I would say K through 5 all in school, and middle school and high school all remote,” he said. “That’s the staff we have to do it well.”