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As schools plan amid coronavirus, ‘flexibility is certainly key’

Several signs were displayed by a group of parents who want a full reopening of school this fall during a protest at Emery Park in Lexington.
Several signs were displayed by a group of parents who want a full reopening of school this fall during a protest at Emery Park in Lexington.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe/The Boston Globe

For Massachusetts students, the first day of school looks to be unlike any other, as districts try to plot a course through a pandemic and safely resume classes this fall.

Some students may don face masks and return to school buildings that have been revamped for social distancing. Others may learn remotely through classes taught entirely online. In many communities, students are likely to do both.

Nearly everyone seems to agree about the threat posed by the coronavirus, but executing a strategy to resume education safely will likely bedevil state and local school leaders well into the new school year.

“Flexibility is certainly key,” said Rachael Abell, president of Beverly’s School Committee.

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The pandemic, which has killed more than 8,400 people in Massachusetts and has infected more than 111,000, forced the closure of schools in the spring, along with virtually the entire state economy. Following a phased reopening over the past few months, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration last month directed school districts to develop scenarios for bringing back students.

Those plans — with procedures for students to return full time into classrooms, along with options to conduct remote education and a hybrid approach that rotates students between at-home and in-school learning — are due back to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Aug. 10.

Educational leaders recognize that, ideally, the virus would go away, and students would be able to resume classes as normal in the fall, Abell said. But that increasingly looks unlikely.

“We humans, as much as we like to think we call the shots, the virus is,” Abell said. “And we must do what’s best for each and every one of us.”

Some districts have already faced the impact of COVID-19: Weston Superintendent Marguerite Connolly tested positive for the disease, a local official said late last month. And earlier in July, a Westwood summer school employee learned she had the disease.

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Fear over a new surge of cases has many educators backing remote distance learning to start the school year, including two of the state’s largest teachers unions: the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts.

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

READ MORE: What are Mass. school districts’ plans for reopening this fall? Read their proposals

In Newton, Michael Zilles, president of the union representing about 2,100 teachers and other school workers, said that most of his members support starting the year with remote learning.

Being in classrooms would be very difficult for students, he said, while adults would find it very stressful and anxiety-provoking to teach in those circumstances.

“My members are generally nervous about going back into the buildings,” Zilles said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

In recent weeks, as the numbers of new cases and deaths due to the coronavirus continue to be reported here and across the country, state and local education officials are already making changes. In much of the state, schools could start two weeks late, in order to give them more time to prepare for the upcoming school year.

Ruth Goldman, chairwoman of the Newton School Committee, said officials have been following the guidance of the city’s Health and Human Services Department in planning the reopening, including recommendations for social distancing in classrooms.

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“That immediately meant we could no longer consider what we called a modified full in-person scenario, because our classrooms don’t accommodate 20 to 23 children spaced 6 feet apart,” Goldman said. “That really punted us into, you can only do a hybrid, or obviously, distance learning.”

During the spring, results from the rapid switch from classroom learning to distance learning sessions were mixed. Some districts reported technology problems, while some teachers found it difficult to engage students remotely for extended periods of time, particularly younger children.

In Weymouth, for example, a district survey found many parents, teachers, and paraprofessionals reported students struggling — at least somewhat — with remote learning.

The survey, which noted these issues were not unique to Weymouth, reported that students were less motivated, more distracted, and struggled to get organized.

“Some families and teachers also report their students are struggling more academically now,” the presentation said.

Some education officials, like Zilles and Kathleen Lenihan, chairwoman of the Lexington School Committee, said they are frustrated that planning for reopening schools followed the state’s phased restart of the state economy.

That effort allowed businesses like restaurants, gyms, retailers, and theaters to resume over the summer. Schools, they said, should have been the focus as the economic plan was implemented.

Lenihan said the state allowed restaurants and party boats to resume business over schools, “and now we have to live with the consequences.”

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In Lexington, where teachers return to work Aug. 31 and the school year is expected to start Sept. 14, students and families will have the choice of remote learning at home or a hybrid program that includes time in the classroom or at home, according to Lenihan, a parent of a high school student.

Natalia Hunik, the parent of an incoming kindergartner, was among a group of Lexington residents who recently demonstrated at the town’s Emery Park calling for plans to fully reopen schools. Hunik held a sign that read, in part, “Spring learning was a failure.”

They also called for greater transparency and parental engagement.

“It should not be driven by fear,” Hunik said in an interview. “I think there have been a lot of attempts by everyone to incite fear, and it’s just not helpful. We have to use science, and we have to use facts.”

Like in Newton, Lenihan said guidance from Lexington’s public health officials indicated they couldn’t safely bring all students back to their classrooms in the fall because social distancing wouldn’t be possible.

For schools to reopen — and bring back students to the classroom full time — Lenihan said Baker and Massachusetts lawmakers must increase the state’s testing capacity.

“We need a fast, robust, comprehensive testing plan, and we are not getting that from the federal government,” Lenihan said. “Honestly, we are good at figuring out how to teach kids, if you give us the tools to keep them healthy.”

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Hunik said she and other parents want their town’s school system to be more transparent about plans for bringing students back into schools safely.

“The parents want a seat at the table,” she said. “We want to be part of the discussion.”

Lindsay Mosca, a Watertown School Committee member and a Wakefield educator, said the weeks between early August and the start of school “is a COVID eternity,” during which circumstances around the virus could change radically.

Mosca said the state should have implemented a phased reopening for schools, much like what was done for businesses. Schools should follow state parameters based on public health data to determine each stage of reopening, from distance learning to a partial return to full in-classroom learning.

Leaving the decision to local districts turned a public health issue into a political one, said Mosca, who was among officials who criticized the state’s plan for reopening schools in a Globe op-ed column.

“In the absence of this data, the state has set up a polarized argument,” Mosca said. “Every other sector in Massachusetts had the luxury of opening in phases ... and the schools were left to themselves.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.