Students at Bedford High School and John Glenn Middle School are scheduled to return to full-time in-person learning on Monday, April 26, School Superintendent Philip Conrad told the School Committee at its meeting Tuesday, bringing the school system ever closer to pre-pandemic conditions not seen for more than a year.
The return is facilitated by the March 19 change in guidelines by the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said that three feet of student separation in a classroom is no riskier than the original standard of six feet, as long as “prevention strategies are consistently and correctly used.”
“I have instructed the principals, leadership teams, and transition teams at John Glenn Middle School and Bedford High School to bring students back with three-foot distancing and maintain six-foot distancing in front of the room for educators,” Conrad reported. “Elementary students are all back in at six feet, and I see no reason to change to three feet because they are making it work.”
All Bedford schools will be adding Wednesday classroom time to meet the state’s five-day requirement.
Conrad said one reason the high school and middle school will return simultaneously is that their bus transportation schedules are coordinated. He noted that parent survey results indicate how many students will be in school and how many will opt for the fully remote model.
The superintendent said collaboration with teachers continues. The Bedford Education Association’s Transitional Oversight Committee has done “an incredible job of working with us to make sure we have good information from teachers.”
The Commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 9 announced that the hybrid model will no longer be counted as required learning time for elementary schools as of April 5 and middle schools as of April 28. Bedford will meet both of those deadlines, Conrad said, adding that the state commissioner has not announced a return date for high schools.
The current remote learning option will be retained for students who for medical and other reasons will require them. Conrad noted that the commissioner announced that a remote option will not be required for the coming school year. “We have worked with families of students who were medically fragile or had other issues and will continue to work with families to ensure that their learning needs are taken care of,” he said.
The committee expects to hear specific building-based plans at a meeting next Tuesday.
Conrad expressed gratitude to teachers and administrators, and declared, “We are going to have to change to five days. My hope is that this is the last time they have to make a change of this sort, so we can go from here to the end of the school year. So we don’t have to reinvent our schools again.”
Conrad said a survey conducted before the state announcements, and before the policy for faculty vaccinations was loosened, showed that 90 percent of teachers intend to be vaccinated; and 78 percent of middle school teachers and 73 percent of high school teachers are willing to return with three-foot distancing.
He also noted that fewer than half of the teachers currently on remote assignments would be comfortable coming back to the building even after receiving a vaccine.
Asked by committee member Ann Guay about teacher vaccination rates, Conrad said he didn’t have the data. He emphasized that there is an intense effort to secure appointments for faculty and staff, including some parent volunteers. More than half of the teachers have used the free Covid testing offered by the town, he noted.
On Tuesday the superintendent and the committee focused on ensuring that situations that bring children together—lunch and bus transportation—are in compliance with safety standards.
Conrad said students must be six feet apart at lunch. Tents are planned for all four schools to provide for a safer eating environment, weather permitting, he said, and administrators are considering adding or reconfiguring lunch periods. Asked by committee member Brad Morrison about cafeteria ventilation Conrad said Facilities Director Taissir Alani will provide details at next Tuesday’s meeting.
Conrad said under state guidelines, there are no limits on bus seat occupancy for elementary school students, while older students could sit two per seat. Finance director Julie Kirrane said bus populations will not necessitate more than two per seat.
Nevertheless, Morrison expressed concern about the bus proximity—“that’s closer than three feet.” The superintendent said the state agency considers a bus with open windows an “outdoor environment.” He also said “safe routes to school” advocates continue to encourage walking and biking—the bike rack at the middle school is now covered, he said. Morrison encouraged parents to continue to drive children to school. On the bus, siblings can share seats, offered committee member Sarah Scoville.
Ryan Doucette, the BHS senior who serves as the student representative to the committee, pointed out that he and other students who reside at Hanscom Air Force Base, as well as Metco students, don’t have the walking or biking option. The superintendent replied that if overcrowding becomes an issue, buses can be added or schedules adjusted.
Morrison also pointed out that the return to middle and high schools follows a vacation week when some families will be traveling. Public health guidelines say testing should follow out-of-state travel, which means school days could be missed while awaiting test results. Conrad said a temporary remote connection would be acceptable in that situation.
Committee Chair Dan Brosgol added a word of caution. “We have all noted upticks in cases – just keep that in the backs of our minds,” he said. Brosgol pointed out all of the municipal agencies and individuals that have worked to support the schools’ efforts to reopen. “We should feel so proud and humbled by the effort of this community to support us.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763