Reopening schools in the middle of a pandemic was never going to easy.

Some districts bought desk shields because they could not easily accommodate social distancing guidelines. Others — like Andover — adopted hybrid models to keep capacity low. Still others went to fully remote learning.

Public schools across the region received federal funding because of COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. However, nearly every school district had to supplement that with previously budgeted funds to provide for students.

Or, they went without.

As the pandemic continues to rage on, the threat of spreading the virus, costs of accommodations, and staffing remain the biggest hurdles to returning to school full time.

At a late December School Committee meeting, officials announced schools in the district would be remote from Dec. 21 until winter break and resume for a week of remote learning before going back to the hybrid model on Jan. 11. 

Earlier in the meeting, Andover parents video-conferenced in, pleading to get their children back into school. Tara Dunham, a parent and licensed mental health counselor, spoke about an increase in anxiety and depression in children she sees at her office.

“I’ve read and understand what the Andover district perceives as barriers and I acknowledge that. But as a frontline worker in the mental health crisis, my professional oath is to continue to find a way to improve the situation for these children.” Dunham said.

“And as a parent, I have to believe there’s more we can do as administrators and School Committee members and parents working together,” she continued. “I understand obstacles may seem impossible to work around, but we have seen other districts bring back the youngest learners through innovative methods.”

Minutes later, Andover High School teacher Holly Breen sent an email asking that school stay remote before winter break because “students have emailed about their concerns about coming back into the building and being exposed. Staff is also very concerned.”

However, district officials estimate the cost of bringing students back to school full-time is about $5 million, according to Shannon Scully, the committee's chairperson. She wrote an email to parents outlining the need to double bus capacity, which would cost $1.9 million if the buses could be bought and drivers hired.

The district would also need an additional 33 teachers if it brought back all kindergarten through second-grade students while maintaining the mandated distance between students, Scully wrote. If they were able to even hire that many qualified teachers, it would cost the district $2,380,000, she said.

"Administration continues to look for opportunities to remove barriers, but at this time hasn’t identified ways to overcome the issues that existed in August and still exist today," Scully wrote. "A change in circumstances — notably updated safety requirements for spacing (classrooms, cafeterias and buses) and/or adding more staff resources (assuming qualified candidates could be hired) — seems the most likely path to offering more in-person instruction."

As in Andover, so many opinions and conflicting desires are the norm around the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire.

The cost of being in class

In both Massachusetts and New Hampshire individual school districts are in charge of implementing their own plans, however, the mandates for bringing back students are less stringent in the Granite State than the Bay state, where the Department of Education had to approve each district’s plan.

Salem, New Hampshire, is the only public school district in the region where students attend five days a week. The town spent $1.46 million to get students back into class full time, according to records.

The town received $415,583 through the CARES Act and an additional $83,462 in grants. However, Salem used $962,162 of its own funds, too.

“We felt very strongly about getting kids back into school,” said Deborah Payne, assistant superintendent for business operations. “We have gone to a great extent to make that happen.”

Districts around the country were granted part of the $13.2 billion earmarked for schools from the federal CARES Act funds based on the number of low-income students.

Lawrence Public Schools received $6.4 million from the federal government, which allowed the district to supply every one of the roughly 13,700 students with their own laptops, explained Christopher Markuns, spokesperson for Lawrence Public Schools.

In the spring when schools shuttered and switched to online learning the district had only one laptop for every family, he said.

Currently, Lawrence students remain remote and getting high-needs students back is the priority, Markuns said.

No matter what kind of learning students are doing now, everyone from administrators, teachers, and parents to students are looking forward to the days where school can return to normal with in-class group projects and sharing supplies.

To help get to that teachers have been prioritized for the vaccine in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and will start being inoculated early next year.

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