Bedford High School and John Glenn Middle School are on track to reopen for full-time learning before the end of April, administrators told the School Committee at its virtual meeting Tuesday.
“My expectation is that we will be either on time or ahead of schedule,” said School Superintendent Philip Conrad. “Our planning committee continues to work and will come back. We will definitely beat the 28th.”
April 28 is the state-imposed deadline for all public schools to reopen grades 6-8. High school officials told the committee that they want to be in sync with the schedule at John Glenn Middle School; bus transportation schedules are also linked. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has not set the timetable for the return of grades 9-12, but it has said that there will be an announcement sometime in April, with two weeks’ notice.
DESE also has announced that elementary grades must be back to full-time learning by April 5. At Davis and Lane Schools, children in grades 1-5 are scheduled to return to school four days a week on March 15.
The full remote option will continue for families who choose it, as allowed in the state education department’s announcement. BHS Principal Heather Galante said families will be surveyed; they have the option to switch to that model. The current hybrid model will be dissolved. Survey results will be central to facilities planning to ensure safety and compliance, Galante said.
There are some uncertainties. One is distancing in schools. Bedford schools all year have been operating with six feet of distancing. There are indications that will be relaxed at the state level. “We have options for six feet, four feet, three feet — whatever DESE says we can fit in each classroom,” Galante said.
Committee member Ann Guay said it’s a “parallel universe.” Davis and Lane classrooms have been modified and additional staff hired to ensure six feet of distancing, “only to see on April 5 that it’s no longer baked in. Hopefully, we will hear more as the days go by.”
Conrad said doctors made recommendations to the DESE Board, and “that is something we will have to look at very closely with our partners, to see what is scientifically valid and psychologically acceptable for our families, students, and everybody working in our buildings. We will balance as many needs as we can as we move forward in compliance with regulations.”
Another issue is how to account for Wednesdays, which have not been full school days in any of Bedford’s four schoolhouses this year. The DESE order is for five days a week. Conrad explained, “We are going to have to look at all the hours that we are in school. If we aren’t able to make it work, we have to make sure those minutes can be made up on another day and make sure that’s okay.”
Guay said the education commissioner must allow a public comment period; “they’ve got to have anticipated this.” She pointed out that in a “normal” year, Bedford students are dismissed early on Wednesdays to provide time for teacher professional development. “Do you think they are going to allow that?”
Committee member Sarah Scoville pointed out that the deadline for requesting a waiver from the state is March 22. Conrad wasn’t inclined to view that as an option. “The process is quite purposely narrow. It’s not really written for us,” but rather for districts that have not had any in-person experience, or have ventilation issues, or are locked into agreements with teacher unions. The commissioner’s directive has “the force of law,” he pointed out.
Galante said her main office and curriculum teams anticipated the announcement. “We have started planning for an all-in scenario,” she said. The BHS reopening committee includes administrators, teachers, and students as well as technology, health, and custodial representatives. “We are eager, in a safe way, to really have our kids back… It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort.”
Assistant Principal Daniel Hudder said the process began on Feb. 26. “We wanted to get ahead of it,” he said. Now “we have multiple draft schedules, multiple iterations of what we need to do.”
The principal addressed concerns about patterns of attendance at BHS since the start of school. “We have invited students back since the beginning of the year and we continue to invite students back,” she said. “We started excessively flexible with the models,” and one result was “attendance really was fluctuating. Students were sort of self-selecting from the hybrid.”
Asked by member JoAnn Santiago to address reports of absenteeism, the principal explained, “What we were finding is some students were coming in on Monday and staying home on Thursday. Some students stayed remote for a few weeks and, for whatever reason, were coming back to the hybrid.” Also, she said, “the data in BHS records did not reflect reality.”
Since last month’s communication to parents requiring sticking to one of the models, “there has been a sizable increase in in-person attendance,” Galante said. She assured that “high school students are not slipping through the cracks.”
Galante referenced “the vibrancy and communal quality of our building. I think students are really missing that (our ninth-graders don’t know what they are missing). Students miss that warm feeling of being in a fun and lively place. We are doing our best to recreate the community that everyone so misses and the adults miss it too. The good part is the students have really strong connections with adults in our building.”
BHS senior Ryan Doucette, student representative to the School Committee, acknowledged that since more students have been present “the classes are much better.” The impact was “dramatic, especially in senior-heavy classes.” He asked if the school days will be lengthened. “We are going to have to look closely at that,” the principal said.
Asked by member Brad Morrison about teacher morale, Galante said that “teachers are tired for sure. It has been such a heavy lift for them. But knowing that the vaccine is available now for educators, people are feeling like there’s hope. Our faculty, they want students back; they just want to be safe in doing so.” She added that the uptick in attendance was like “a shot of adrenalin.”
She said she also was uplifted by the relaxation of state guidelines on singing in school. This week, “we were a little misty seeing our students sing in person.”
Galante emphasized that despite the exigencies of dealing with the pandemic, BHS has adhered to the school improvement plan and has executed “a really robust year in terms of teaching and learning.”
Conrad told the School Committee that administrators and teachers at Davis and Lane Schools “are doing a great job preparing families, preparing students, helping new teachers. People can see the level of care and concern from everybody – there’s been a lot of communication.”
Committee Chair Dan Brosgol pointed out that every child in the elementary schools is affected by the reopening. Those who aren’t moving to new classrooms have friends or teachers who are, he said. “I have every confidence that when they go back to school, they will find a warm and wonderful place.”
Conrad said the edict from the DESE commissioner reflects “a desire to figure this all out now so when we come back in the fall we can have a smoother transition to five-day in-person for all districts. We will do it as we have done everything this year, collaboratively and well.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763