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For many Massachusetts districts, school year might start 2 weeks late

Massachusetts schools may start two weeks late this year, under a tentative plan agreed to by the state's largest teachers union and the state.
Massachusetts schools may start two weeks late this year, under a tentative plan agreed to by the state's largest teachers union and the state.David L. Ryan

School districts across Massachusetts will be allowed to delay the opening day for students this fall up to 10 days — and students won’t have to make up the lost time — under a deal finalized Monday that aims to give districts more time to prepare for a safe return.

Under the deal — struck between state education officials and the state’s three largest teacher unions — districts can use the first 10 days of the school year to provide teachers and staff with time to redesign classroom lessons, learn techniques to help students overcome trauma they may have experienced during the pandemic, and to learn an array of new safety and health protocols developed to keep students safe from the coronavirus.

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“It’s going to be a new world for everyone,” said Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts. “I just don’t see everything getting done in time.”

The deal sets Sept. 16 as the latest students should return to classes. That means districts that were planning to resume classes before Labor Day, which lands on Sept. 7 this year, will benefit the most under the agreement, which loosens a state rule requiring 180 days of classes, while districts that were slated to reopen after the holiday, like Boston, would lose fewer instructional days. However, districts can seek state approval to begin classes after the 16th.

The deal was signed by the AFT, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, and the Boston Teachers Union.

One of the big ideas behind the delay is to be more thoughtful about reinventing education this fall rather than the scramble that occurred in March after Governor Charlie Baker abruptly closed schools statewide as part of a concerted effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

“We had 24 hours from the time the governor closed schools to begin what I called crisis learning,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. “We now have 10 days to redesign COVID learning to connect educators and students with one another. It’s exciting.”

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The agreement capped off weeks of negotiations that began shortly after the Fourth of July on a number of proposals union officials were pursuing to ensure a safe and educationally sound start to the school year, as part of a broader effort to create a phased-in approach to reopening schools.

The other proposals called on Jeffrey Riley, the state education commissioner, to adopt a rigorous process to evaluate the health and environmental standards of all buildings statewide to ensure they were safe enough to reopen, require rapid COVID testing and contact tracing procedures, and set specific public health benchmarks in order for in-classroom instruction to resume. The unions also wanted Riley to scrap the MCAS.

But Riley abruptly ended the talks last week, indicating that the delayed start to the school year was the only area in which he was interested in striking a deal, Najimy said. The parties met on Friday and reached a verbal agreement on that measure.

“He has been in such a rush to give out guidance,” Najimy said. “It’s often incomplete and creates chaos.”

Word of the deal began circulating Monday after the unions signed the memorandum of understanding, but Riley delayed signing it even though the state drafted the language, creating confusion. By Monday night, Riley approved it and shared the details with superintendents.

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“I’m glad that we were able to reach an agreement that will both support teachers and help ensure students have a successful return to learning,” Riley said in a statement. “School will be different this year, and time for additional training will help educators and staff become better acquainted with the safety measures, protocols, and other changes that will be necessary to begin instruction.”

Final approval for a later opening day is still up to individual school committees, which in most districts set the calendar each year.

The reopening of school this year is expected to be unlike any other ever before. Students will have to wear masks, keep at least 3 feet of physical distancing between one another, and most likely eat breakfasts and lunches in their classrooms. Music classes will largely be banished to outdoors — the only place where students can sing and play musical instruments, although they will have to maintain at least 10 feet of social distancing.

And students will likely see only half of their classmates at most, as districts including Boston and Lexington have signaled they will rotate their students in groups between in-classroom and remote learning from home.

Stephen Zrike, superintendent of the Salem public schools, said he will likely recommend to his School Committee delaying the start of school for students, but hasn’t yet determined by how many days.

“There’s no question we need more time,” Zrike said. “If we are teaching in-person in any way, there will need to be rearrangement of classrooms and training on new safety protocols. And if we continue with remote learning, we will need more training time.”

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Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said she hopes Boston will take advantage of the flexibility.

“The BPS superintendent has promised to apply this provision, and we are counting on her to keep her word and work with the BTU to ensure that Boston educators have the time they need to prepare with staff and get the resources they need to support all of our students,” Tang said in a statement.

The school year in Boston is currently slated to start for most students on Sept 10, which means if the district delayed fully until Sept. 16 it would gain only four days of training time — unless the district seeks a waiver for more time.

The Boston school system was noncommittal Monday night about delaying the start of the school year for students.

“BPS is aware of the latest [state] guidance allowing a delayed start date for the school year,‘ Xavier Andrews, a spokesman, said in a statement. “Once we receive confirmation from the Commissioner, BPS will be meeting with our educators to review the information and determine the best path forward for our BPS students, teachers and community.”


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