Schools brace for year of trials

TIM JEAN/Staff photoSchools across the Merrimack Valley, where classrooms have been without students for months due to COVID-19, are in the process of planning the next academic year.

It’s all about planning — more now than ever.

The current school year is just ending, but already local education leaders are strategizing for the start of the next academic year in the fall.

They say they have no choice. An uncertain future caused by the coronavirus crisis is forcing schools to search for effective ways to teach students, while protecting their health.

Some school districts in the Merrimack Valley are considering a hybrid model of education — a mix of classroom instruction and remote online learning. Remote learning done electronically from home carried students through the last two-plus months of the current school year.

In the next school year, perhaps students will attend traditional classes three days one week and study remotely the other two days, and vice-versa the following week. Or maybe that model would alternate month to month or semester to semester.

Despite the various academic models being considered, superintendents in the region agree on one thing: They will depend on advice from the governor to set the ground rules and provide guidance.

Gov. Charlie Barker has put Jeffrey Riley, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in charge of developing a plan.

Andover Superintendent Sheldon Berman said the district is unable to determine how schools will operate in the fall until he receives more guidance from state and federal agencies. They include the Centers for Disease Control, the state Department of Public Health and the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, he said.

“I think we are facing a very ambiguous situation right now,” Berman said. “The worst-case scenario is that we continue to do the remote instruction, but we do it at a higher level.”

Berman said the district is considering several models of instruction for the fall. They include a combination of in-person and online instruction to decrease the number of students in classrooms. Those numbers will be limited by social distancing to guard against COVID-19.

In Lawrence, School District spokesman Chris Markuns said the current plan is for schools to open in September on their regular schedule. The big question, however, is what instructional methods will be used.

The catch is it’s “too early to predict what it will look like,” he said.

Fortunately for the School District, Chief Operating Officer Anne Marie Stronach is on the state’s school reopening task force, which gives her, and in turn the district, a good understanding of what the state is thinking about when it comes to school reopening procedures.

“Being on this (state) committee, receiving a lot of material, digesting, listening to a lot of different perspectives, is an absolute advantage to me and that trickles down to the district,” said Stronach, who also serves on the Lawrence school reopening task force.

The state and local task forces, each of which have 40 or 50 members, are studying two broad categories: social/emotional issues and operational issues.

Emotional and social issues are just as important as the physical needs of students because children have been through a traumatic experience and may have trouble adjusting to new rules accompanying the reopening of schools, Stronach said.

One possible model in Andover includes allowing rotating groups of students to attend classes in person two days per week, Berman said. Another model would incorporate a split schedule in which some students would be in classrooms in the mornings and others in the evenings, he said. That option would require an additional run of buses, however, which Berman said would be very expensive.

Transportation of students would be more complex in general, with school buses carrying nowhere near their 70-person capacity because students would need to sit a safe distance from each other, Berman said. That would force the district to increase the number of bus runs, as well as sanitize buses between runs and perhaps check the body temperature of students before they get on a bus, he said.

In Methuen, “much is unknown” about the reopening of local schools because the city is waiting for information from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said Mayor Neil Perry, who is also chairman of the School Committee.

“I would be shocked if it was a traditional opening,” Perry said in a text message, “meaning I’d expect some alternative plan from DESE.”

 Staff Writers Genevieve DiNatale, Breanna Edelstein, and Bill Kirk contributed to this story.




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