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Newton School Committee delays vote on schools’ fall reopening plan to Friday

The Horace Mann Elementary School on Nevada Street in Newton.
The Horace Mann Elementary School on Nevada Street in Newton.Leslie Anderson for the Boston Globe

Newton’s School Committee postponed an expected vote on the schools’ reopening plan to Friday as members continued to press for more details about the sweeping changes needed to allow students to resume classes this fall.

Officials are aiming to have a plan in place so students and staff can safely resume school next month, just as state officials are slowing the state’s reopening amid an uptick in new cases of the coronavirus.

The “Return to Learn Blueprint” proposal, which was presented to committee members Monday afternoon prior to a public unveiling that night, calls for implementing specific plans and daily schedules for students at all grade levels enrolled in either a distance-learning program, or a plan that mixes remote instruction and in-person classroom teaching.

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The proposal assumed a return to school of either Monday, Sept. 14 or Wednesday, Sept. 16.

But several members, including Tamika Olszewski, have said they need more time to review the proposal and listen to community members before making a decision. There are a number of unanswered questions surrounding issues like child care, services for METCO students, and budgetary and staffing considerations, she said.

“Our Achilles heel of this return to school... is our staffing needs, and what that might look like,” Olszewski told her colleagues. “Because on the one hand, we have the obligation to educate our students, and on the other hand, we need people to do that job.”

A decision on the reopening plan is scheduled for Friday at 3 p.m., said the committee’s chairwoman, Ruth Goldman. In the meantime, the School Committee will hold a pair of virtual office hours on Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday at 8 a.m. to hear from the public.

If the board votes for the plan Friday, the district will send out a survey to families to ask their preferences about the options for distance learning and a part-time return to the classroom for students, Goldman said.

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As part of the work to reopen schools, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller told committee members that Newton is working to provide more accessible and faster testing for COVID-19 for those who are symptomatic and for those who have had close contact with people with symptoms.

She said the city is working with other partners, including Newton-Wellesley Hospital, plus the state is also ramping up its surveillance testing for those who are asymptomatic for the disease.

“It’s a need that every single district, city and town wants, and I would say, deserves, but we are highly dependent on the state for ample surveillance testing,” Fuller said. “Like everybody else, we’re working on it.”

During its three-hour meeting Wednesday morning, the School Committee did not address new guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that encouraged a full return to school by students, and could significantly limit when districts could implement distance learning programs.

Goldman and other Newton officials have repeatedly said that it would not be feasible to bring all students back in person, and the district did not develop a plan for bringing students back full time.

According to state data, Newton is among the communities with an average daily case rate of the virus that allows for a full return to the classroom. The state education department’s expectation for districts in that category is to offer full-time in-person schools, or a hybrid model if there are “extenuating circumstances,” according to the guidelines released Tuesday night.

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Goldman, in an interview following Wednesday’s meeting, said the new guidance would have been more helpful in June, as Newton and other districts were still developing plans to reopen their schools. She said it’s unlikely that the new state guidance will lead to any drastic changes in Newton’s reopening plan.

“Our extenuating circumstance is that our Health and Human Services Department says we must maintain 6 feet of distancing,” Goldman said. “We don’t have the school building space to house every person and maintain 6 feet of distancing.”

On Wednesday, Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, released a copy of a petition calling for Newton schools to start remotely that was signed by nearly 1,000 members of the union.

“We insist that students and staff not be sent back into buildings this fall until and unless we, through our union, have agreed that the plans, protocols, and school infrastructure provide for this to be done in a way that is safe for students, staff, families, and the larger community,” the petition read. “Moreover, we insist that the remote learning plans to which we return be guided by what is best for students, staff, families, and the larger community, and not by adherence to a rigid interpretation of state and federal regulations.”

On Monday, Superintendent David Fleishman said the “big ideas” in Newton’s schools proposal include giving all students direct contact with teachers every day, plus offering a much more structured distance learning effort. The program was completely revised from an earlier version rolled out after school buildings were closed in March.

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The School Committee is expected to also meet during the week of Aug. 24 to decide if the plan needs to be updated before the school year starts.

James Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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