Facing an intense two-month sprint before the scheduled first day of school on Sept. 10 — and mounting demand for details on their reopening plans — Boston school officials say they will release three possible blueprints for the fall by the end of this month.
One thing is already certain: the district will base its plans on 6 feet of social distancing in schools, not the 3-foot minimum included in state guidelines, according to spokesman Jonathan Palumbo, who called it “the most logical approach.”
And district officials are also likely to ask families to decide next month if they want to opt out of in-person instruction altogether. Because attendance in school buildings probably can’t be mandated this fall, due to health concerns, many districts across the state are expected to offer a remote-only option, though details on capacity and eligibility are still in flux.
That 6-feet-spacing standard is likely to be safer, but will add complications in a district where some classrooms were already overcrowded. Staff are evaluating rooms to assess what 6-foot gaps will mean for the numbers of students and desks that can be accommodated, said Palumbo. Members of the district’s planning team have also been hunting for extra classroom space in other buildings owned by outside partners.
“We’re listening, looking at best practices, and setting clear expectations for sanitizing buses and buildings,” Palumbo said. “In August we want to be educating and preparing families with their options, and finding out what their plans are for participation.”
District leaders expect to present some concrete details on reopening to the School Committee at their meeting on July 22. They will also soon announce the schedule for a series of online meetings over the next few weeks where parents and caregivers can give input.
Some schools are also holding their own meetings with families. And Boston Latin School is asking caregivers to let them know by Friday if they are unlikely to send children back into school buildings, though their responses are not binding if they change their minds.
All Massachusetts school districts must submit three plans for reopening to the state in August: one for a continuation of remote learning only, another outlining a return to school buildings, and a third that would mix the two approaches. The state has not set a specific date next month when the plans are due.
But already, plans are starting to trickle out. For example, Lexington school officials released two draft plans last week: a “Remote Learning Academy” that will provide online-only education, and a hybrid model that divides students into two groups that will alternate weeks in and out of school. The district plans to release its 7,000 students early every Thursday to allow time for weekly deep cleaning of buildings.
Lexington’s remote-only model is designed specifically for “students, families, and staff who are immunocompromised and can provide medical documentation,” according to the 60-page draft. A recent survey found that 16 percent of families in the town prefer a remote-only learning model, the plan says.
A similar recent survey of 1,800 families by Cambridge Public Schools found 60 percent were very likely to send students into schools this fall, while 25 percent were undecided and 15 percent were not likely to be comfortable.
In Boston, much of August will be spent educating families about new policies and schedules — and figuring out how many students will return in person, Palumbo said. The district, the state’s largest, serves about 55,000 students across 125 schools.
The evolving state of the pandemic and rising tallies of COVID-19 cases in many states make those calculations difficult, at least for now.
“We don’t know what the situation will be in the fall — or in the winter,” said Katrina Norman, a mother of two BPS students.
She, like other parents, said the district’s plans will be critical in assessing whether her concerns have been addressed. She is particularly eager to hear how the district plans to provide extra help for students with disabilities and other unique learning needs, who have borne heavier educational losses in the school shutdown.
“I want to know how we’re helping kids who have fallen behind catch up,” she said.
As they devise their three scenarios, school officials across Massachusetts will also need to factor in additional guidance from the state, expected to arrive “on a rolling basis, as it is finalized,” a spokewoman for the state’s Executive Office of Education said. State guidance on special education was released this week; guidance on transportation is expected within the next two weeks.
Schools statewide have been closed since mid-March. State guidelines released last month for a possible reopening of schools require social distancing of 3 to 6 feet, face masks for students in second grade and higher, and meals served in classrooms, not cafeterias. Temperature checks for students are not required. Some parents and teachers have criticized the guidelines for not going far enough.
In Boston, in addition to the online meetings for parents, the district plans to begin negotiations this month with the union representing the district’s 10,000 teachers, nurses, guidance counselors, and other employees, as they prepare to finalize plans that will outline duties and expectations for educators.
Palumbo said the input from families and caregivers collected so far is roughly split between those whose priority is to get their kids back into school, and others whose focus is on public health, and how to enforce rules about maintaining distance and wearing masks for a population of children and teenagers.
Those tensions have been heightened in recent days by forceful calls for reopening by President Trump, who has threatened to block funding from districts that fail to send students back to classrooms. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in, citing potential harm to students from remaining out of school.
Nevertheless, the draft reopening plan in Lexington, at least, includes no option under which students would return to school full time — an omission that has already been criticized by some.
Families there must fill out a form to request one of the two available back-to-school options by Wednesday, though district officials say they reserve the right to change their plans if a second wave of the pandemic rolls in.