The Newton School Committee is expected to vote Wednesday morning on proposed plans for distance learning and part-time classroom instruction this year, as the city’s schools develop measures to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic.
But officials cautioned that as there has been a recent uptick in the state’s coronavirus cases, any plans for handling the schools’ reopening may be forced to change course.
“I think we are going to continue to evolve our plans,” said Ruth Goldman, the School Committee’s chairwoman, noting that officials are trying to put structures in place in a “very fluid system.”
On Monday night, school officials publicly released a 39-page “Return to Learn Blueprint,” which calls for giving families the option of enrolling students in a program to learn from home, or for students to spend part of their week learning in a school building and also work remotely.
School officials proposed specific plans and daily schedules for students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels for both the distance learning and the part-time classroom plans, while the school year will either start Monday, Sept. 14, or Wednesday, Sept. 16, officials said.
“We have some big ideas in this plan: That students have direct contact with teachers every day, whether it’s in-person or at home, and we tried to have a lot more structure to our distance learning plan,” David Fleishman, Newton’s schools superintendent, told School Committee members Monday.
Goldman said if the board votes Wednesday in favor of the school district’s recommendations for reopening, surveys will go out that afternoon to ask families whether they want their children to attend school in person part time or entirely from home.
The School Committee is also expected to hold another meeting the week of Aug. 24 to discuss any updates that might be needed for the schools’ reopening plans, she said.
Before officials discussed the reopening proposal, several Newton teachers and parents spoke during the meeting, which was held virtually.
Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, read from a petition he said was signed by about 1,000 union members calling for only distance learning this fall until the union agrees that a return to classrooms can be done safely.
“Health and safety of students, staff, families, and the larger community must be the primary drivers of all decision-making,” Zilles told school officials.
State teachers unions have backed an all-remote school start, while Governor Charlie Baker said health data doesn’t support keeping all students out of the classroom.
David Goldstone, a parent of two Newton South High School students, called for the schools to follow state guidance in implementing a plan for bringing students back safely.
“The School Committee has been talking and listening to the teachers union for months... NPS needs to listen to parents, as well as teachers,” Goldstone told officials.
Newton schools have been closed since mid-March, when numbers of coronavirus cases grew in the spring, and officials scrambled to teach the city’s nearly 12,800 students while they remained at home, and connect thousands of teachers and other staff to work remotely.
The new plans for the coming school year were developed at the direction of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. As part of that effort, the current proposal for distance learning has been completely revised, officials said, with scheduled academics and activities throughout the day for every grade level. The school’s remote learning program in the spring faced criticism for not offering a robust curriculum for students.
Both distance and part-time classroom instruction will have consistent expectations for attendance, assessment, and grading, according to the proposal.
The state's education department also called on each school district in Massachusetts to develop a full return to in-classroom instruction for students.
In Newton, like in nearby Lexington, offering an option for students to return to school full-time was determined not to be feasible based on health guidance and facility considerations, according to the presentation. Among those concerns that have been raised by school officials is that there is not enough room to bring all students and staff back while maintaining social distancing during the day.
The district is recommending part-time in-classroom learning because the coronavirus’s transmission rate in Newton is currently low, and that it is advantageous to give students the opportunity to meet teachers at the start of the school year, Fleishman wrote in the proposal.
The proposal is also designed to allow the district to switch quickly from one educational plan to the other, depending on the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus.
All students will be issued technology for education use, including touchscreen iPads for pre-schoolers through grade 2, and Chromebook laptops for older students, the proposal said. The district will work with families to ensure everyone has reliable Internet access from home.
To help enable distancing in schools, the part-time classroom program will break students into cohorts who will go to school buildings for instruction twice a week, according to the proposal. Current schedules for all grade levels call for one group to be at schools Mondays and Tuesdays, while a second cohort attends school Thursdays and Fridays. All students will work remotely on Wednesdays.
One factor that shapes the part-time program is food service, which poses an “incredibly complicated” issue because people need to remove masks to eat, the proposal said.
Instead of eating at school, schedules are currently designed to dismiss students at lunch time. Students will resume the school day remotely, according to the proposal. “Grab and go” meals will still be offered by schools to students.
Newton’s 415 students enrolled through the METCO program will be supported in both the in-person and distance learning plans. The district will work with families who cannot pick up their children midday to explore after-school program options in Newton and Boston, and opportunities for METCO families to collaborate with other families for peer support.
METCO students who attend classes in person will have a “safe opportunity” to eat lunch before they leave the school building, according to the proposal.
Students with individual education plans will receive full services, officials said. Students with disabilities, particularly preschool-age students and those with “significant and complex” needs, will be prioritized for receiving in-person instruction.
While in school buildings, classrooms will be arranged to maintain 6 feet of distancing, face coverings will be required for everyone, and a back up supply of masks will be available. There will also be “mask breaks” when students can be distanced, ideally outside or with classroom windows open.
The schools have also been purchasing masks and other personal protective equipment for students and staff. They have created a “COVID Isolation Room” in every school building to allow monitoring by a school nurse.
Custodians will also be given more time to complete expanded cleaning protocols for each building. Inside schools, most interior doors will remain open, hand sanitizer stations will be in each classroom, and restrooms will be monitored throughout the day, with disinfecting services conducted every night.
The city’s buses will be capped at 25 students per bus, and people will ride with their masks on while the vehicle’s windows are open, the proposal said.
The district has also rented 38 tents and distributed them to each school for multi-purpose use, officials said. Anyone going to a school building must also complete a daily health assessment, and stay home if sick. Newton’s schools will also follow COVID-19 protocols issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the proposal said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.