But there’s also a big difference: all the students will be together in school, and there will not be hybrid or fully remote learning models – for now.
Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad presented details about reopening to the School Committee at its virtual meeting on Tuesday.
He said the return to solely in-person instruction will enhance the academic experience and “our classrooms will go back to being student-centered.” He noted that there is no distancing requirement.
The superintendent said an indoor face-mask requirement for students and staff is expected from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) this week. The state Board of Education authorized the step at a meeting Tuesday morning.
Asked by committee member Dan Brosgol about the budget implications of the new academic year, Conrad replied, “I feel like we are doing well in terms of hiring and our covid contingencies. I feel confident we will be able to prioritize health and safety and at the same time move forward with our educational agenda.”
That agenda emphasizes “rebuilding teachers’ relations with students, and students with one another, and from there focus on their academic needs. I’m excited that we will be able to move forward with some more of our academic priorities,” the superintendent said.
Other components of the reopening plan include:
- Lunch will be outside, including in tents, for the foreseeable future, with building principals investigating other common spaces that can ensure safety when it’s necessary to eat indoors.
- “Co-mingling” between sections and grades will be discouraged in all buildings because that could disrupt contact tracing.
- Bedford has signed up to be part of the DESE testing protocols, including pool-testing. Conrad pointed out that under state policy, the tests have to be voluntary.
Committee member Dr. Brad Morrison asked Conrad to detail plans “when and if there is a need for remote education.” He explained, “I’d like some reassurance that if we had to close the schools, we would have a plan in place.”
Morrison said that if DESE allows remote education for students home in quarantine, “we are going to b able to accommodate that. We want to encourage the right behavior for people who have mild symptoms.”
Conrad said the building principals “are already working on what to do and how to do it” if a remote option is needed. “We have to work with teachers to see what they’re prepared to do,” he stressed. “We want to make sure we are not doing Zoom in the room, but are going to balance that by taking care of our students. How are we going to do both of those things? That’s what we are working on right now.” He said he hopes to have more details at the next meeting.
Conrad acknowledged that the schools’ leadership team is anticipating more guidance from DESE on how students can remain involved in class if they need to be quarantined at home. “We were told there would be no remote option, though it got a little grayer on Friday,” he said.
The state-mandated mask policy is expected to feature an exit ramp for middle and high schools. The draft reads that as of Oct. 1, vaccinated students will not be required to cover if at least 80 percent of the student population has been inoculated. Conrad noted that according to Health Department reports, more than 80 percent of Bedford residents between the ages of 12 and 19 have received a vaccination.
Brosgol pointed out that the state mask mandate begins at age five, but at Davis School, children in the Bedford Integrated Preschool Program are as young as two. Conrad replied that “if it’s a building that has masks, we will have masks throughout the building.
In answer to Brosgol’s question, Conrad said he anticipates that elementary school students will continue with ace-covering until a vaccine is in use. “That isn’t happening anytime soon—mid-fall or early winter at the earliest. To me, this is really sad.” Conrad agreed: “I think all of us are disappointed. If you look at the tone of things in June we were very hopeful.”
But committee member Ann Guay declared, “I remain optimistic. We’ll do what we have to do. It’s just going to be a few more months but I think we will get there.”
Morrison asked how students “are going to be protected from the emotional turmoil of this ongoing pandemic? What are we going to be doing to help students cope with this situation?” Conrad said that “each school s doing it a little differently. All of the schools have been looking at how to welcome students back and build relationships between students and teachers, and look for signs of strain and stress.”
Responding to Morrison’s question, Conrad said the district has hired a test coordinator to help expand participation in covid pool-testing, which struggled last spring to realize critical mass. He added that “messaging” will be the key. “We need to target the reasons for testing. It’s going to help people not have to quarantine, not have to disrupt their lives.”
Brosgol also expressed concern about continuing limits on parents’ attendance at student events. “I will be disappointed if fully-vaccinated adults can’t attend key events for kids and parents,” he said. “We have missed seeing our kids do stuff. Those buildings are crying for parents to be around.”
Conrad was not optimistic. “I don’t think we would fill a concert hall at this point. I don’t think we would introduce external adults,” he said.
At its meeting last week, the committee spent close to two hours listening to 40 comments on the merits or liabilities of requiring masks in schools.
That became academic with the state ruling on Tuesday, and the three speakers under “comments from the public” at this week’s meeting actually called for additional health and safety steps.
Michaela McCormack said “current guidelines for close contact are a recipe for disaster.,” and she suggested the committee consider distancing requirements. Veneta Greenaway called for “plans for the worst-case scenario that we have to shut all the way down.” Jeremy Kaznocha urged the committee to “keep as many precautions you had in place last year.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763