School districts across Massachusetts are due to submit their fall reopening plans Friday -- per a state-imposed deadline -- amid heightened concern over the safety and education of students.
The state's education department directed school districts to prepare plans for three different reopening models: in-person, remote or a mix of the two. Several districts have already opted for online-only or hybrid versions of in-person and remote learning.
The deadline comes amid intense debate over what school should look like in various communities, each grappling with differing levels of coronavirus transmission.
"We should not be trying to go into the school buildings. At this point in time, we simply are not prepared," teacher Becca Maclean said. Propenents of bringing students back to classrooms in some form argue children benefit from in-person learning and socialization.
Boston Public Schools decided to move back the start date of its school year to Sept. 21, but has not made a decision on whether class will be in session or not.
Dr. Brenda Cassellius, the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and Mayor Marty Walsh have already ruled out a full-scale return for the fall. Cassellius has said that any plans may be adjusted at any time.
The Boston Teachers Union has been calling for a remote-only start to the school year and held a rally in front of the State House Thursday for the cause, while some parents push for schools to reopen full-time.
"We want to work in person with kids but we think starting early on a large-scale basis is just a recipe for disaster," BTU Executive Vice President Erik Berg said. "We want to go back where it’s safe and when it’s safe."
At least 31 districts in Massachusetts have decided against having kids return to class at all, opting for online only.
Worcester schools are among the latest districts to announce that it will begin the year with remote learning.
Members of the city's School Committee unanimously approved a remote-only fall reopening plan, at least the first quarter, on Thursday. Students could switch to a hybrid model for the start of the second quarter. The decision comes as Worcester sees an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
The COVID-19 index for Worcester recently changed from low risk to moderate, according to the state, due to an increase in cases. Officials in Massachusetts released a color-coded map earlier this week that identifies how much the coronavirus is currently spreading in all its communities.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has indicated that they will limit the use of online learning within school districts based on the coronavirus risk level in their communities.
Worcester's all-remote learning model involves providing students with Chromebooks, which includes students in special education programs. If students return to the classrooms in the second quarter, those with the greatest needs would be prioritized.
The city has set aside $15 million to upgrade HVAC systems within school buildings to improve ventilation. While the plans have the full backing of the Worcester superintendent, some parents disagree with the decision.
"I think they should have thought about it a little more," parent Vanessa Morris said. "They could put the ages, the classes down to less children than there are because there’s 30 kids in a class, usually. I think they could’ve broken it down a little bit more and talked to more parents because they never talk to me about it."
Health Concerns Over Hybrid Models
Infectious disease experts warn that hybrid learning models could pose a public health disaster, according to the Boston Globe. Often referred to as hybrid, hopscotch or blended learning, the plan involves alternating schedules for students between coming into a school building for in-person instruction and remote learning.
Those plans could raise the risk of catching COVID outside of the classroom, experts told the Globe, because a lot of parents will have to send their kids to day-cares or bring in babysitters as they return to work. This could mean mixing what doctors call networks of possible patients.
Under a remote plan, kids are mostly exposed to the people in their households. An in-person learning plan would expose them to a consistent group of kids and school employees, according to the experts, while a hybrid plan would widen that circle.
Up to 30% of the country is expected to try the hybrid model, the Globe reports, citing EdWeek, a publication covering K-12 education.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts may have lost more than a quarter of the available space at child care centers, complicating life for parents at a time when school districts are still deliberating whether to bring students back to the classroom this fall.