Full-time in-person classes will be offered at Cambridge elementary schools as of April 5. (Photo: Cambridge Public Schools via Facebook)

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced new requirements for district schools last week, mandating that districts offer students the option of full-time in-person and remote classes for five days a week beginning in April.

Despite the order to offer in-person classes, the default mode statewide remains remote learning, and students can remain in remote classes through the end of the academic year.

In Cambridge, grades pre-K through Grade 5, plus grades 6 through 8 at the Amigos School, will begin offering full-time in-person classes April 5. Upper schools, which teach grades 6 through 8, must transition April 28.

The state plans to issue guidance for high schools in April, pledging to give districts a minimum of two weeks notice before the expansion must begin.

The Covid-19 Hardship Process, used to request switching a student’s learning mode, has been suspended and will resume after the April expansion.

The DESE Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to adopt legally binding amendments to the state’s Structured Learning Time regulations on an emergency basis March 5. The minimum is five hours per day at the elementary level, and five and a half hours at the secondary level.

The board’s decision gave commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley the authority to decide whether learning modes in use throughout the state – in-person, hybrid and remote – provide lessons that count toward the SLT hours required by the state. If a district does not comply or get a waiver, any missed time must be made up during the school year, the summer or the next school year. The state’s Chapter 70 funds, the major state aid program to public elementary and secondary school, are tied to the requirements.

Riley announced in guidelines issued March 9 that hybrid and remote learning modes do not meet the state’s SLT standards, and ordered that all schools in the state must offer full-time, in-person classes five days a week beginning in April.

The mandate does not allow the district to continue with its current hybrid model, as only remote classes are held on Wednesdays and the upper schools and high school students are partially remote schedules.

Districts may request that students who travel to a location on the state’s restricted list during the April school vacation learn remotely the following week.

Implementing the mandate

Superintendent Kenneth Salim noted that there is “significant work” to do for the district to comply with the mandate, including reworking class schedules, implementing methods to maintain social distancing in classrooms and during meals and balancing students who selected in-person learning with staff availability.

One large piece of the puzzle fell into place on Thursday: Families had to opt-in to in-person classes the day before, so the district has learning mode data to plan for the expansion.

A second puzzle piece remains up in the air, in educator availability to teach in-person classes. Many district educators were granted accommodations to teach remotely based on several criteria – some based on medical conditions, but the majority due to child care needs.

While is expected that the majority of the state’s districts will offer expanded in-person learning to elementary students per the state’s timeline, Salim said scheduling is complicated because every educator’s circumstances are different. An educator’s home district may be granted a waiver to delay implementing the mandate, or the staggered expansion across grade levels may mean that a teacher’s children do not return to in-person classes at the same time Cambridge begins its in-person expansion.

District administrators will meet with the Cambridge Education Association’s union leadership to reconcile the state’s mandated requirements with the union contract, Salim said.

Salim noted that principals and school teams have the autonomy to tailor instruction to the resources and constraints at each school, including enrollment, classroom space constraints and staff availability.

To accommodate larger in-person classes, students may be assigned to different teachers or classrooms; in-person students may be taught by an in-person teacher or by a remote teacher via “livestreaming” to school-distributed Chromebooks and supervised by a staff member, said Salim, adding that a priority is expanding off-screen learning opportunities.

Social distancing

The state’s mandates make the minimum social distance in all classrooms 3 feet, citing multiple health organizations and studies. “While districts should space students further than 3 feet when feasible, evidence demonstrates that the additional risk reduction associated with 6 feet as opposed to 3 feet is low – when masks are worn and other mitigation strategies are in place,” the state says in March 9 guidelines.

The guidelines state that “teachers and staff should maintain 6 feet of distance from students and other staff when feasible,” noting that brief exceptions may be needed such as “helping a student individually, walking between desks, etc.”

The district’s elementary schools comply with the guidelines, but it will be a significant change for the district’s upper and high schools, which maintain 6 feet distance in the upper and high schools based on the recommendation of its own panel of experts.

During meals and when students are not wearing masks, a “strict 6 feet of physical distance between individuals” is required in state guidelines.

The state encourages schools to alternate or stagger mealtimes; use gyms and other rooms; schedule teacher’s “duty-free” lunch at the end of the school day; “repurpose” school staff; hire lunch monitors from adjunct staff, such as crossing guards and bus monitors; or ask for parents volunteers.

The district’s chief operating officer, Jim Maloney, noted that there no single solution that applies to all of the city’s schools. While gyms and cafeterias may be used if ventilation requirements are met, tents are being installed at schools that requested them, he said.

Waiver request

Districts can request a waiver from state education officials to delay implementation of the guidelines.

A district must present a “compelling case” to be granted a waiver. If the request is granted, a district will have a limited time to move from its current schedule to the required five days per week of full, in-person learning time.

Notably, the state will not grant a waiver if there is high community prevalence of Covid-19 in the community, or if a district wants to maintain a “physical distancing standard of greater than 3 feet” in classrooms.

There is a provision in the guidelines that if a district can bring some – but not all – of its schools to full-time, in-person classes, a waiver can be submitted as expansion plans for these schools are finalized.

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