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Newton high schools, middle schools to open remotely in fall

Newton City Hall
Newton City HallJim Davis/Globe Staff

Newton’s high schools and middle schools will open remotely next month under sweeping changes to the district’s coronavirus reopening plan unanimously approved by the city’s school committee Wednesday night.

The move, which affects about 4,000 high school students and 2,900 middle schoolers, comes three weeks before the start of the school year, which is scheduled for Sept. 16.

The reopening plan also requires school district officials to develop plans for bringing students back for in-person learning.

The plan was approved in a pair of unanimous votes following a four-hour discussion by the nine-member School Committee. It was first unveiled publicly Tuesday.

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Superintendent David Fleishman, who made the proposal, said the move to all distance high school classes was driven by staffing and educational issues.

“I thought, as painful as it is, that with all this information, if my kids were at Newton North or South, I think that remote learning is the best option,” Fleishman told School Committee members. “I actually make the decision with my own kids in mind.”

Middle schoolers will also begin classes remotely, but those enrolled in a hybrid program will transition to part-time in-person classes beginning Nov. 16.

Students with high needs in any grade can participate in-person learning, according to the plan.

Elementary students in the hybrid program will be returning to part-time classes in school in the first weeks of school.

While distance learners begin Sept. 16, students in kindergarten to grade 2 will start with in-person orientation and activities, with instruction starting Sept. 21. Students in the grades 3, 4, and 5 begin classes in-person Sept. 28.

Officials want to transition in-person students to two full days each week starting Nov. 1.

As part of the same committee motion, leadership was told to present recommendations for phased in-person instruction for high school students by the end of November.

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A separate proposal allowing for students in all grade levels to return to their schools is due by mid-January.

Wednesday’s decision reverses a committee vote on a hybrid plan earlier this month that would have provided a choice of remote instruction, or part-time in-classroom teaching to families with children in the middle and high schools.

Debate over how to reopen the city’s schools amid the public health crisis has roiled the district, which enrolls about 12,800 students. Some raised concerns over safety and equity of a hybrid plan; others worried about the quality of an all-remote program, particularly after a spring online program didn’t offer enough structure for students.

The tension was apparent Wednesday, when several dozen parents, students and others demonstrated outside Newton South High School and City Hall in opposition to remote learning.

Some carried signs, including several that read “Save our schools.”

Trista North, parent of a Newton South student, told the crowd gathered outside City Hall to demand officials change course.

“Please let your voice be heard, so that people know that this really is a concern,” North said. “They completely left the high school students behind in this process.”

Dr. Stefanos Kales, who has two high school aged children in Newton, criticized the handling of the reopening effort by school officials.

“I want to send them back to the drawing board,” Kales said. “We’ve really been let down.”

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Students and parents demonstrated outside Newton South High School on Wednesday to call on the School Committee to vote "no" on a proposed plan to start the city's high schools remotely in September.
Students and parents demonstrated outside Newton South High School on Wednesday to call on the School Committee to vote "no" on a proposed plan to start the city's high schools remotely in September.John Hilliard

Earlier, during a protest outside Newton South, students Brady Epstein and Daniel Schwartzman, both 16, said students want to go back to their schools.

“We want as many days in school as possible,” Epstein said. “We think it’s harder to build relationships with teachers when you’re seeing them through a camera.”

“It’s a lot easier to learn when you’re in a classroom setting,” Schwartzman said.

The Newton Teachers Association, which represents more than 2,000 teachers and school staff, called for a remote start, until its safe to return to buildings.

Students have also petitioned officials to keep people at home, including two Newton South students who gathered about 1,100 supporters for the union’s proposed reopening plan.

A few hours before the School Committee began its 7 p.m. meeting, the educators’ union hosted a virtual overview of its own proposal to reopen schools remotely, and then gradually transition to in-person instruction when it is safe to do so.

Michael Zilles, the union president, said the association’s proposal created schedules for the remote and hybrid programs that are “pretty much identical,” and would make it easier to transition from one model to another.

“We really emphasized a sustainable and consistent educational experience throughout the year,” Zilles said.

The union’s presentation also included Dr. Kristin Ardlie of the non-profit Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who called for surveillance testing to be available for the city’s schools to protect students and teachers.

“Newton is not too big or too costly for this type of program,” Ardlie said. “I truly believe Newton should be among the leaders that are working to establish teacher safety programs [and] recommendations for the state.”

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