Newton’s high schools could shift to an all-remote program this fall, while middle and elementary school students could participate in either part-time in-person learning or at-home instruction, according to a revised reopening proposal presented to the city’s School Committee Tuesday.
Officials are working to finalize a plan for when schools are set to resume next month for nearly 12,800 students, and continue to grapple with logistics around staffing and technology for students, among other issues.
The nine-member School Committee, which includes Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, is expected to vote on the proposed plan Wednesday during a public meeting starting at 7 p.m.
“No one has done what we are doing right now before, no one has done a hybrid model, no one has done a distance model at any scale,” Superintendent David Fleishman told the board. “This is so hard.”
Like other Massachusetts school districts, Newton schools closed in March, and switched to remote instruction, after Gov. Baker declared a public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic.
A plan unveiled earlier this month called for families to choose between a hybrid plan, with students attending school in person two mornings per week, or choosing entirely online learning. That plan was criticized by the city’s teacher’s union.
Under the new reopening proposal, high school students would participate in distance learning when school resumes Sept. 16 and continue that way for the foreseeable future, Fleishman said. The changes proposed for Newton north and south high schools are driven by staffing and educational logistics , and not because of public health, the superintendent said.
“The staffing challenges, combined with some equity and feasibility concerns, mean that we will, at the high school level, need to start in a distance-only model,” Fleishman said.
The district would look to provide high school students with some form of in-person programs, including extra-curricular opportunities like athletics, he said.
The same proposal would also require middle school students enrolled in a hybrid plan to begin classes remotely Sept. 16, and transition to part-time in-class instruction beginning Nov. 16, Fleishman said.
Elementary school students would begin on Sept. 16 with in-person orientation and activities, while students in the distance learning program begin classes, according to the proposal.
Kindergarten to grade 2 students enrolled in the hybrid program begin in-person instruction for two half-days per week starting Sept. 21.
Children in the hybrid program’s third, fourth, and fifth grades start classes in-person the following week, according to the proposal. Officials hope to transition elementary school students to two full days of in-person school beginning Nov. 1.
Students with high needs at all grade levels would also be able to attend school in person, he said.
If the proposal is approved by the School Committee, it would replace a plan approved by the board less than two weeks ago.
The plan, which allows students to either participate in part-time in-person classes or join a Distance Learning Academy, was criticized by the Newton Teachers Association , along with groups of students and parents, who said they were concerned about the untested effort’s ability to protect health and safety of people in schools when classes resume.
Officials have pointed to recommendations from the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, which include requirements that everyone in schools wear masks, practice social distancing, plus widespread cleaning and disinfecting of buildings.
Many community members also questioned whether Newton’s schools could equitably deliver the same level of education provided by in-person instruction to students who will learn entirely remotely.
The teachers union has repeatedly called on Newton school officials to rescind their vote on its earlier hybrid reopening plan. The union, which represents more than 2,000 teachers and other school employees, has called for the school year to begin entirely remotely and gradually bring students back to classes.
Michael Zilles, the union’s president, said they would hold a public presentation of their proposed reopening plan during a virtual session Wednesday at 4 p.m.
“The NTA remains concerned that elementary classroom teachers, special education teachers in high school, middle school, and elementary school, and preschool teachers will be returning to school before the Newton Teachers Association has been able to confirm that they and their students will be safe,” Zilles said in a statement Tuesday. “The NTA continues to negotiate for a phased reopening that puts health and safety concerns first.”
A pair of Newton South High School seniors organized an online petition of students who support the reopening plan pitched by the teachers’ union.
The petition, organized by students Melissa Shang and Carrie Ryter, said the hybrid plan approved by the School Committee was “incomplete, unsafe, and inequitable,” and called on officials to reverse course.
The petition also called Newton’s current hybrid model -- which includes part-time in-classroom teaching and a Distance Learning Academy -- “rife with inequities.” That model discriminates against students and teachers, including those with disabilities, who live outside of Newton or those who have limited access to health care, it said.
As of Monday, more than 1,000 people had signed the petition, including hundreds of Newton students, Shang said in an interview.
Shang said she has a form of muscular dystrophy and will attend school remotely because of health reasons. If the current high school plan remains in place, she said she is concerned that students who don’t attend in-person classes will suffer academically.
“Students are having to choose between their lives, the lives of their families, and their education,” Shang said. “How is that fair?”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.