School systems statewide are scrambling to overhaul their reopening plans and return all students to full-time, in-person instruction in the wake of new mandates from state education officials.
Some districts said they might request waivers from the state in hopes of postponing complying to the aggressive move by Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, who scrapped the widely used hybrid schooling option and ordered elementary students back to school full time by April 5 and middle-schoolers by April 28.
Worcester school leaders announced that they will seek a waiver, and Boston school officials are considering that step, citing their “diverse, multilingual community” and operational complexities related to their large size.
Riley’s directive set off waves of anxious recalibration among administrators, teachers, and school committee members, after many had spent months carefully crafting reopening plans based on consultations with families and negotiations with unions.
“It feels like whiplash, for us and our families,” said Adam Weldai, a school committee member in Malden, where the district released a detailed schedule three weeks ago that would have phased all students into a hybrid schedule. “After months of absent leadership, the state comes in like a sledgehammer.”
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Superintendents Association, said the accelerated timeline is triggering intense stress among leaders already exhausted by a year of managing complicated logistics and intense emotions on all sides.
“Everyone has their head down, trying to make it work, [but] we’re hearing that the timing is tight, and that people would have liked a little more time to try and implement it,” he said. “It’s like starting up the school year again in a three-week period, and that’s the challenge everyone is struggling with.”
He said he expects to see multiple districts file waiver requests, including some urban districts where crowded classrooms may make it difficult to maintain even 3 feet of social distance, the current state standard in classrooms. Managing student lunchtimes, when a wider 6-foot distance between unmasked students is required, is emerging as a key challenge, he said.
Citing logistical hurdles, Worcester Public Schools plans to seek a waiver to delay its full-time reopening for one month. The state’s second-largest district has been educating all students online and had planned to ease them back into school on a part-time basis this month.
“We simply can’t comply safely to bring our kids back full time on the April 5th date because of the 3-foot requirement,” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said at a press conference Thursday.
“Hopefully, by the end of April, we can have a lot of the teachers vaccinated,” he said.
A small number of school districts, including Worcester and Chelsea, have remained fully remote for most students this school year. The majority of districts have relied on a hybrid model, in which students learn remotely part time and attend school in person two or three times a week, to reduce the number of students in classrooms.
In Malden, as in other places, the looming loss of the hybrid model is causing angst for some families, who feel comfortable sending their children into classrooms at half capacity, but fear that health and safety risks will multiply when every desk is occupied.
“Now these families are faced with a choice to either accept that we can no longer offer six feet of spacing and take on that additional risk ... or to opt for remote-only instruction which will force their students to change teachers for the last two and a half months of the school year,” Myev Bodenhofer, the vice chair of the Norwood School Committee, wrote in an e-mail.
The state is allowing districts to continue offering a remote-only option to families. No date has yet been set for full-time reopening of high schools.
In Chelsea, where COVID-19 positivity rates have consistently ranked among the highest in the state and school has been completely remote all year, school leaders are preparing for a drastic turnaround. The small city with many immigrants plans to bring back students in first through fourth grade full time, five days a week, by the state’s ambitious April 5 deadline.
“We’re skipping hybrid,” said Superintendent Almi Abeyta, saying parents want the continuity of daily in-person instruction.
The district plans to seek a waiver allowing it to bring kindergartners and fifth-graders back a little later, because they attend school in separate buildings from the majority of elementary school students. “If any school district in the state has some flexibility, it’s going to be Chelsea,” she said.
According to a survey still in progress, 58 percent of Chelsea parents of children in kindergarten through fourth grade say they would send their children to full-time, in-person school, up from 50 percent in a survey taken in July. “That’s huge for us ... a community that’s been hard hit by COVID,” said Abeyta. “Even our parents are saying that it’s time to come back.”
Whether middle-school students will also return full time is still in question.
As administrators wrangle over how to furnish classrooms and make crowded buses safe, teachers face another anxious race against the clock, as they try to score hard-to-find vaccine appointments before their classrooms fill with students.
While state officials have mandated an ambitious reopening timeline, they haven’t made it any easier for teachers to get vaccines locally, say some educators.
“It’s disruptive to have teachers scheduling appointments and taking sick time to get the vaccine,” said Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti. “They vaccinated first responders locally and that seemed to go pretty well. I don’t know why they didn’t do that this time.”
In Malden, local officials had to cancel two local vaccine clinics scheduled for teachers last month when the state did not provide vaccines, said Weldai.
In Chelsea, many educators will have the opportunity to be vaccinated this month through an arrangement with East Boston Neighborhood Health Center. Large-scale vaccination clinics for educators in Brockton are also underway, with appointments scheduled for hundreds of teachers and other staff.
In Lawrence, school leaders are surveying parents about their appetite for returning students to full-time, in-person classes. “We do anticipate adhering to the DESE return timeline,” a spokesman said.
Some parents welcomed the state’s assertion of authority.
“People have lost faith that the districts would have been able to do this on their own,” said Melissa Bello, a Needham mother involved with the group Bring Kids Back MA.
Glenn Koocher, executive director of Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said many school committee members resent the intrusion into local affairs, but will do their best to comply nonetheless.
“School committees and parents are in favor of getting back to school,” he said, though some may need more time. “I’m not seeing a revolt.”
James Vaznis and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.