With too many students to fit in classrooms under social distancing rules, school districts across the state have tried to get creative. Some have divided their students into cohorts, with plans to cycle them through school buildings each week — on Monday, cohort A goes to school, on Tuesday cohort B goes to school, and so on.
But in Lowell, which serves nearly 15,000 students, the district has chosen instead to hold a weighted lottery for in-person spots, infusing an element of luck into the once-guaranteed process of sending children to learn in person in public schools.
Families enrolled in the district were defaulted to remote learning, but could enter a lottery in late August for in-person education, with students who met certain criteria receiving weighted entries. The district said it had room for 3,763 students to learn in person, or roughly 25 percent of the total student body.
“We’re trying to think out of the box the best we can,” said Mike Dillon Jr., a Lowell school committee member, in an interview. The district, he said, wanted to prioritize children with high needs, but also didn’t want to tell all the other families that their kids would have no chance to learn in person, especially after a district-wide survey showed the vast majority of families wanted their children to return to school.
A hybrid model failed to take into account parents who didn’t want their kids to be in school buildings at all, Dillon Jr. said, and the district figured that five days of a single schedule, even if it was not a family’s first choice, would be more stable than the alternative.
“We thought this was the best way to give as many choices as we could to people,” said Dillon Jr., whose 12-year-old applied for an in-person spot.
Too many families wanted to send their kids to school — about a third of the student body, or roughly 5,000 students, applied for in-person slots, according to Dillon Jr. The lottery was designed to take care of that overflow.
At the lottery’s conclusion, there will be slightly more than 1,000 students in Lowell schools who wanted to attend in person, but weren’t chosen. Some grades have far fewer spots than others: There were 66 spots for twelfth grade students and 313 for first grade students.
Lowell is perhaps the only major urban school district in the state that is attempting some type of in-person learning for the beginning of school, said Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. He said he was not aware of other districts using a lottery of the kind Lowell devised to decide which children would receive an in-person education this year.
Some students will have a higher chance of getting an in-person slot, including those who require additional educational resources, those who are homeless or English language learners, and those who have siblings in the school system.
But children of essential workers, or single parents, or parents who work multiple jobs, don’t necessarily get priority in the lottery. On a Lowell parents Facebook group, parents commiserated with one another about who might be left behind.
“This is keeping me awake at night. I have no idea how I can work and keep up with remote learning,” one parent wrote.
“Us too,” another responded.
Denae Pritts, 38, entered the lottery for her three children, ages 10, 7, and 5. They missed their friends and had low attention spans for Zoom classes, and they wanted to go back to school. Pritts tried to explain the complicated odds to them as best she could.
“Even if we opt to go back, one of you might get a spot, none of you might get a spot, or you all might get a spot,” she recalled telling them. “Each of you hit a couple of the weighted situations. . . maybe you have a higher chance.”
She felt for the district officials scrambling to put together a good plan in an unprecedented situation, and she agreed it made sense that some students got higher priority based on their needs. Still, she hoped her children would snag some of the limited spots available.
“If you get a spot, you’re lucky,” she mused.
On Friday evening, after a day of increasing confusion over when exactly the lottery would take place and how families might learn its outcome, the school district held a Zoom meeting to explain the weighting system and kick off the process.
“We have designed this lottery using our equity lens, and making sure that we’re able to serve our students with the greatest needs, but giving an opportunity to everyone who has indicated that this is their desire for the school year,” said Latifah Phillips, the chief equity and engagement officer for Lowell Public Schools.
Perhaps somewhat anticlimactically for an event that would determine the course of the next few months, the lottery actually took place on a computer program, with results e-mailed out to families over the course of Friday evening. After the rules were explained, there was nothing for parents to do but close the video and wait.
“Let the lottery commence!” a school official said cheerfully.
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