School Committee Explores Ways to Bring More Elementary School Students Back to In-Person Learning

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Jan. 5, 2021—School Committee members Tuesday continued to push for exploring ways to bring more elementary school children back to in-person learning during the current academic year.

Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad agreed to prepare one or more scenarios for restoring full-time, in-person school for at least the youngest learners. He expects to present to the School Committee later this month.

The impetus was provided by the newest member of the committee, Brad Morrison, who asserted, “I believe we have time to make three or four more moves toward a phased return between now and the end of the year. I don’t think we can stop now.”

He acknowledged that there is “a whole lot of uncertainty right now, so now is not the time to bring a whole bunch into the schools. But it doesn’t mean we can’t work on the planning now.”

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol agreed that the effort should continue, but with more input from a broad swath of stakeholders. “I want to see what’s realistic, given what we know, for the rest of the year,” he said. “But I feel quite strongly we do not have a complete picture to make a decision. I need more information on how to prioritize for spring.”

The School Committee and administration “hear very loudly from discrete groups of people,” he said, but other constituencies have been relatively quiet, such as students, teachers, and middle and high school parents.

“I am starved for more perspective because the next kids we bring back has to make sense,” he said, adding that not only younger students but also high school seniors closing out their careers may make sense. His colleague Sarah Scoville said particular attention should be paid to transition years – grades three, six, and nine.

BHS senior Ryan Doucette, the student representative to the School Committee, remarked that there are high school students “just getting lost because they are not used to struggling.” The school, he said, is “doing a great job finding them.”

Morrison pointed out that the committee now has a space report demonstrating that there is room to accommodate many more students safely in classrooms and other rooms – space that has existed all year. The committee, he said, “should be pushing a little harder to be sure we don’t have implementation delays.”

Brosgol differed with Morrison on the utility of the full study, but he acknowledged that there is now not only a space inventory but also a cost framework, based on a budget variation for the next school year that Conrad described earlier in Tuesday’s meeting.

Conrad said central office and school building leaders have been working on scenarios, but discreetly, “so as not to over or under promise.” He noted that there are “pressures and challenges” that are part of any plan, including hiring and transportation, “that go with every change that we make. Unfortunately, those do take time.”

Assistant Superintendent Tricia Clifford added that a collaborative approach by definition is  deliberate – not to mention the demands of day-to-day operation of the schools.

“We have given the leadership so much work. The work is not complete,” Brosgol commented.

Morrison is seeking more transparency, but acknowledged the accomplishments of the superintendent and his team, which is why “I have so much confidence that it’s okay to push a little.” He said considerations include not only teachers’ health and welfare, but also “how many parents in this town would actually send kids to school if allowed? When should we be reaching out and collecting information from parents and other stakeholder groups?”

Committee member Ann Guay agreed that “the planning has to continue. We need to push as hard as we can.”

Morrison also requested a breakdown of the numbers of students and staff who have been infected by Covid-19 over the course of the year. Member JoAnn Santiago displayed a visual demonstrating that in-school separation of less than six feet can leave the schools vulnerable to exponential student quarantine, based on the state’s definition of “close contact.”

Santiago also asked for a report on school counseling throughout the grades.

Conrad informed the committee on continuing progress toward student returns authorized last month. All of the co-called Cohort C – students with special needs defined as “moderate” – are in school four days a week except at Lane School, where classroom modifications delayed the return by a few days. A group of high school students struggling to meet graduation requirements also has returned, and kindergarteners are on track for around Feb. 1.

Principals, he said, continue to examine “how they can continue to expand the number of students who are in – what is possible and what is not possible for this school year, and for the fall.”

He said the return to the hybrid model after the holiday break was in itself a testimony to “families who chose to stay safe.” Other school districts began January fully remote, he noted.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763
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