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Somerville becomes one of the first Mass. districts to announce remote-only school for the fall

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file

Somerville schools will start classes on a remote-only basis this fall, bringing students back part time for in-school instruction only when it is “practical” to do so, officials said Tuesday.

“When we can begin to return to in-person learning safely, we will do so,” Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone of Somerville wrote on Twitter.

Somerville is one of the first school districts in Massachusetts to announce a remote-only model. Franklin Public Schools have also said they intend to start with remote-only classes for kindergartners through 12th graders, with in-person instruction prioritized only for “high needs students,” school administrators told families in a note on Saturday.

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Somerville school officials made their decision Tuesday morning, writing in a note to families that there are still multiple safety components that schools need to have in place before students can safely return to the classroom on even a hybrid basis.

School officials want to bring in an engineering firm to “assess the ventilation and filtration systems in our school buildings” and also create a virus surveillance testing plan.

“As we have said from the beginning, the safety and health of our students, staff, and families is and will remain our top priority,” Curtatone, Superintendent Mary Skipper, and School Committee chair Carrie Normand wrote.

But, they continued, their choice to have students return to a remote-only schooling model this fall doesn’t mean they believe it’s ultimately the best model for students.

“One thing is clear: Everyone is in agreement that in-person instruction is the best thing for students and educators miss their students and students miss their teachers, paras and counselors,” they wrote. “We are doing everything we can to be ready for an eventual return to phased in-person instruction under the new safety guidelines. At day’s end, we need to ensure that we have done everything possible to mitigate the risks of a return to our schools — so that our staff, students, and families feel safe and are safe.”

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The district is also looking into ways for students, staff, and families to gather outdoors.

The Somerville Teachers Association had been pushing for a remote-only start, writing in a recent op-ed that 85 percent of the city’s educators would prefer remote instruction for now.

It’s certainly not a long-term solution — everyone would like to return to in-person learning as soon as it is safe — but for now, it’s the decision that makes sense, said association president Rami Bridge.

“Somerville educators came to this conclusion awhile ago but they didn’t come to it lightly. No one is excited about the state that we’re in right now,” he said. “ . . . There’s nothing any of us want more than to go back to in-person learning. None of us signed up to be teaching at a computer all day.”

Massachusetts school districts were required to submit their draft reopening plans to the state by Friday, including plans for three reopening scenarios: entirely in-person, entirely remote, and a hybrid of the two. Districts are expected to submit final plans — both to the state and publicly — by Aug. 10.

Schools have been encouraged by Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to prioritize in-person education.

Prioritizing in-person teaching is something kindergarten teacher Roxane Scrima would like to do as soon as it’s safe to do so. She misses being able to bring her kids on field trips, welcome them onto the decorative rug in her plant-filled classroom, or help them tie their shoes — none of which would play out quite the same way with social distancing requirements in place.

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Scrima has asthma — putting her in the high-risk category for experiencing severe coronavirus symptoms — but when she thinks about returning to school, her health isn’t at the forefront; all she thinks about is the experience she can give her students.

She worries about the reality of teaching young children remotely longterm.

“It’s a whole different remote from last year because last year we knew our kids,” said Scrima, who teaches at the John F. Kennedy School. “This year, we don’t know them.”

Nevertheless, she knows that a remote-only start to the school year is likely “the safest way,” and she’d rather wait to return to the classroom until they can stay for good.

“I don’t choose to want to teach remotely because it’s hard. It’s so hard,” she said. “[But] if going back means that we’re going back out, then I’m happy that we’re going remote, because I don’t want to start saying hello to children . . . and then not be seeing them for a couple weeks.”


Felicia Gans can be reached at felicia.gans@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @FeliciaGans.