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Students likely to attend school only part time this fall, local officials warn

Remote learning is likely to remain a reality for many Massachusetts students this fall.
Remote learning is likely to remain a reality for many Massachusetts students this fall.AP/Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star/Associated Press

School officials across Massachusetts are increasingly warning families that students will attend classes in person only part time this fall, as the effort to protect students and staff from the coronavirus will continue into the foreseeable future while also wreaking havoc on family work schedules and the pace of learning.

Just this week, districts including Bedford, Oxford, Newton, and Springfield issued notices to their communities that classes this fall will likely include a mix of remote learning and in-person classes on a rotating basis — most likely having half the students in class at one time and the other half at home.

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Springfield officials explained that the dual approach is based on state recommendations to ensure schools have enough space for students and staff to practice social distancing, according to a statement issued Wednesday. But they added the back-to-school plan could change depending on the course of the pandemic and final school reopening recommendations from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

“We know that people have lots of questions, but we are sharing these very preliminary plans now with the hope of providing families with enough time to begin preparing for the fall,” Springfield Superintendent Daniel Warwick said in a statement. “We will continue to share information on an ongoing basis as plans materialize and further guidance is issued by the state.”

Newton Superintendent David Fleishman on Wednesday told families in an e-mail, “Portions of the next school year will likely involve three different modes of instruction: in-person learning at schools, distance learning with an improved schedule, and/or a hybrid of the two models to facilitate social distancing.”

“We are developing a plan that is flexible and able to respond to the rapidly changing conditions,” he wrote.

The announcements come as state officials are preparing to release a formal set of recommendations this month for the reopening of schools in the fall that aim to keep students and staff safe from the coronavirus. It will be no easy task in schools where students often sit elbow-to-elbow in classrooms and cafeterias — a definite no-no under today’s world of social distancing in which public health experts have implored everyone to stay at least 6 feet apart.

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Students, staff, and families got a sneak peak at what some of those recommendations will likely include last week when state officials issued guidelines to local districts for ordering personal protective supplies that called for students and staff wearing masks at all times possible and limiting class sizes to no more than 10 students and two adults.

That latter recommendation instantly raised questions about how schools would be able to accommodate all students in a building and classrooms at one time. Buried in the guidelines was a hint about how that would be accomplished: Guidelines for ordering masks offered three potential scenarios of students attending school a quarter of the time, half of the time, and full time.

The growing concern prompted state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to follow up with superintendents this week, telling them the guidelines for ordering supplies in the fall “should not be used to broadly infer what models of learning DESE might endorse for the fall including how frequently students will attend in-person school, class sizes, or student-teacher ratios.”

But superintendents, like Fleishman, are erring on the side of caution in warning families about what the school schedule could look like in the fall so families can prepare.

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In an update sent earlier this week, Bedford Superintendent Jon Sills braced families for the likelihood that remote learning will be a staple of schooling this fall, noting, “the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will be prescribing what schooling will look like in the fall — very likely something like half the kids in and half the kids out each week.”

That reality will likely create a hardship for a district already grappling with more than $1 million in budget cuts for this fall due to a decline in state and local revenues. Sills said he did not know yet how much the district will spend preparing schools for learning in a COVID environment, but noted that the district is purchasing Purell dispensers for every classroom, swivel cameras for secondary classrooms (presumably for online instruction), personal protective equipment, fogging machines, disinfectant supplies, remote learning program licenses, Chromebooks, hot spots, and iPads for kindergartners to use at home.

In Oxford, Acting Superintendent Kristine Nash told parents in a letter Sunday that state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley warned superintendents last week to develop a “blended learning model” for the fall in which students would continue with remote learning while also attending class in-person on a limited basis. Nash said various approaches under consideration include having students show up at school every other week or on alternating days.

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“These are but two of the many models that could be used to limit student capacity as a means to better meet health and safety guidelines,” Nash wrote. “I cannot tell you what model, one of these or another, will be in place this fall.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.