School Committee to vote on student return  

TIM JEAN/File photo. High Plain Elementary, seen here when students headed back to school last fall, and all other Andover elementary schools will start welcoming kindergarteners and first-graders four days a week instead of two if the School Committee approves a proposal Thursday.

Andover school administrators on Thursday are presenting the School Committee a plan to start getting students back into class more frequently.

The proposal would bring back kindergarteners and first-graders four days a week, up from two days, starting March 8.

Currently, students come in two days a week and are virtual three days a week, so the number of students in the building at a time is greatly reduced to allow for adequate spacing. Each classroom has two "cohorts" coming in on differing days to keep the space.

Under the new plan, everyone in those classes will be together, increasing the number of students in school every day. Desks would need to be moved closer, but classrooms would maintain the minimum level of social distancing required by the state, according to  Interim Superintendent Claudia Bach said.

That requirement was changed from 6 feet of distance to 3 feet of distance in August by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In some larger classrooms, Bach said, the space between desks will be greater.

Buses also would need to carry more students at a time in order for the plan to work, Bach said. That became possible when the state changed the rules allowing buses to be full Feb. 11. 

That was “a game-changer to make that first step,” Bach said.

This is the first in a series of plans administrators are working on to increasingly get students back to school amid the pandemic. Bach has been meeting regularly with administrators to accomplish this, she said. 

Elementary school principals and Bach "were in universal agreement we needed to bring back our youngest students if we couldn’t bring everyone back," she said Monday.

It's essential for those students because they are just beginning to learn how to read, Bach asserted, adding that research shows the youngest students are having the most difficulty with remote learning.

The plan is for all five elementary schools — Bancroft, High Plain, Sanborn, South and West — to operate Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The district will continue deep cleaning on Wednesdays, along with having professional development, Bach said. 

Pre-kindergartners at Shawsheen Preschool already have been attending school four half-days per week.

Students will have to maintain 6 feet of space during lunch when they are eating and maskless, Bach said. That will be the biggest hurdle to bringing back even more elementary schoolers, she said.

"There isn’t a single school where lunch can be served where students are still 6 feet apart without multiple lunchtimes," Bach said. "In some cases, we wouldn't be able to have all students back and feed them even if lunches started early in the morning and went all day, which we wouldn't want to do. Each grade added at elementary school eliminates more available space."

There is no set timeline for adding more students, Bach said. This first step will help decide a model for eventually doing so. The middle and high school principals are concurrently working on their own plans, so grades might not go back in chronological order, she said.

Bach pointed out that despite being in school more, business will be far from usual.

“We still aren't totally back even with these youngest learners to deliver our curriculum and instruction the way we want to," Bach said. "There will still be constraints to what we can offer and it won’t be the same.”

However, they will be getting more social interaction with teachers and classmates, which has been the highest priority, she said. 

And now as the days get warmer and spring approaches, it will be easier to bring more students back because in the fall the district bought tents, Bach said. She's asked principals if they need more. The district could use federal pandemic-related funds for that purpose, she said.

“We know our parents have had to be very patient and everyone is tired of this world we are in," she said. "And we are trying to move as expeditiously as possible but with care.”

 

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