Officials vote warily on school reopening plan, mostly remote, with many ways to pull the plug
The School Committee voted Thursday on a model to reopen schools after two meetings that ran more than six hours each, peppered with passionate public comment, detailed presentations on protocols and learning methods, extensive questions from committee members and expert input.
The revised plan provides limited in-person learning to students that have difficulty with remote learning – preschoolers through first graders, select second- and third-graders and students in special programs – and offers remote learning to students in grades 4 through 12.
Approval was unanimous but unenthusiastic, and only with seven “contingencies” around testing and preparation – including one saying plans can change at any time as circumstances change.
“The School Committee faced perhaps its hardest decision to date. I’m proud of my fellow School Committee members for their diligence and care,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said afterward via Twitter. “We continue to have a tremendous amount of work to do as we approach the school year.”
Member Rachel Weinstein agreed it was the body’s “hardest vote to date.”
The district will submit the approved plan to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday, along with a formal release of its details to the public. The state ordered the city to include three models – in-person, remote and a hybrid – although the city is focused on the hybrid.
What Superintendent Kenneth Salim presented was a stark departure from a hybrid model seen just last week, a complicated combination of in-person and remote learning that was different for elementary schools, upper schools and the high school. The committee and the community had two days to evaluate the new proposal before the Thursday vote.
“We made significant changes to the hybrid model through task force discussions and [because of] health and safety concerns with kids in and out of schools and educational concerns,” Salim said. Concerns about preparing different sets of curricula also played a part in focusing on smaller groups of students in school for more days, he said.
Metrics and benchmarks
The district and its Covid-19 task force proposed three metrics that must be met to open for in-person education: no more than 25 new cases of Covid-19 a day (averaged over seven days) per 100,000 people in Suffolk and Middlesex counties; less than 5 percent of people testing positive statewide; and a clean bill of health from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority facility on Deer Island, where Greater Boston’s sewage is processed and monitored for the presence of the disease.
If two of these three metrics exceed thresholds set by the task force, schools will close. Numbers will be posted to the district website and reviewed daily by the administration and Covid-19 task force, Salim said.
There may be a lag. New case numbers are published by the state daily, while the sewage is tested every three days and updated weekly, said Dr. Jamie Lichtenstein, a biologist on the faculty at Emerson College who is among the medical experts participating in district coronavirus discussions.
“There will be a point when the numbers creep up. If there’s a decision to pull back and go full remote … when do we make the call?” asked committee member vice chair Manikka Bowman.
It would be the district’s call based on data trends, said another expert, Dr. Bradley Bernstein of Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute.
“Most other districts are looking to the state to identify that threshold,” Salim said. “Most places don’t have the level of expertise to look at this in as deep a way.”
Safety and facilities
Members focused on two issues: raising indoor air quality to reduce airborne transmission in classrooms, and frequent testing of the school community.
The question of air quality almost derailed discussion. The district has purchased air scrubbers and window fans and hired an outside firm to evaluate all classrooms to ensure that constant air exchange reduces coronavirus particles in the air. The district has posted a list of classroom conditions and upgrades required to keep the air fresh, and the list is being revised daily.
Weinstein reiterated the need for an independent analysis of the facilities manual, saying the district needs to determine if the goals “are attainable or not – and if we can’t provide the safety, then we can’t send people back.” The independent analysis was also approved by the School Committee.
If a classroom can’t be ventilated even with the available equipment, students can be moved from their regular classrooms to a different one in the school, Lichtenstein noted. And Jim Maloney, district chief operating officer, also said that the high school, with its newer infrastructure, could also accommodate students from other schools.
The district outlined other safety protocols, including classrooms that space desks 6 feet apart, installation of sinks and hand sanitizer stations; personal protection equipment including masks and face shields for children, and increased cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces.
The committee’s ambivalence to approving the district’s plan resulted in a set of contingencies that allow the implementation of in-person learning to be paused or shut down.
“This model that superintendent Salim has presented is mostly remote, and there’s a cautious approach being taken to any in-person learning,” Siddiqui said. “Given the emerging data that’s in front of us … there are some contingencies I need, and I think the committee needs, to be a part of this submission to DESE.”
In addition to adoption of the safety and facilities manual and the three metrics, the contingencies include routine testing aided by the Cambridge Public Health Department of all personnel and students participating in in-person learning; and a City Council, Department of Human Services and city staff discussion of child care options for families and educators taking part in remote learning. Committee members also wanted a social-emotional learning, mental and behavioral health plan for all scholars.
Reflecting the committee’s wariness around the plan, members agreed that “this vote is subject to change … and changes to this reopening plan may be necessary at any point.” The committee might call a special meeting at any time to reevaluate, they said.
District and committee officials promised further meetings with the community to refine the approach to opening schools as circumstances evolve.
School starts Sept. 16, but teachers begin work earlier, and the district has divided those first weeks into stages. They begin in early September with educator planning, leading into family-teacher conferences beginning Sept. 14. School begins with half days, leading into four-day weeks of full days (with the fifth for staff planning and small-group or independent activities).
The school district plans to assess the plan’s performance in mid- to late October.