The goal was a return to normalcy, as most elementary schools in Massachusetts resumed full-time in-person learning Monday. But for many parents and teachers statewide — and in one midsized, diverse city north of Boston — the day felt anything but normal.
In his classroom at Malden’s Salemwood School, math teacher Jason Asciola wrestled with the complexities of his new dual role: teaching fractions to the fifth-graders sitting in front of him, while also manning his laptop to teach the students still learning remotely from home.
Meanwhile, at home 2 miles away, mother Amanda Linehan launched her workweek in a strangely quiet house with mixed emotions. She knew her extroverted second-grader needed to be back among her classmates. But that did not erase Linehan’s worries, given how much remains unknown about long-term effects of COVID-19 in children.
“We all want kids back in school,” she said. “But I fear we don’t know all the impacts yet.”
In Malden, ranked by the state as one of 20 places hardest hit by the virus, school leaders had begun bringing students back into schools part time, using a cautious, phased approach, when the state mandated full-time in-person school. Forced to tear up its homegrown strategy, the city asked for more planning time, as did dozens of other schools and districts. But while state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley granted more than 50 waivers last month — including those from Boston and Worcester — he rejected Malden’s request for a two-week extension.
The result was a stressful scramble for compliance, said officials, as school leaders fast-tracked plans to safely manage pickups, dropoffs, class changes, and lunchtimes at the city’s five large K-8 schools, four of which have more than 800 students. They also had to seek replacements for teachers out on leave, and communicate a slew of last-minute changes to the families of 6,000 students, more than half of which spoke another language before learning English.
An estimated 90 percent of districts are now back to offering full-time in-person elementary school, though it’s harder to say how many students are attending, since individual families can still opt for remote learning. Massachusetts has about 625,000 students in elementary and middle schools, where full-time in-person learning must resume by April 28.
In Malden and statewide, some parents applauded the state’s aggressive action to get students back in schools, while others lamented the loss of local control — and the larger numbers of students in classrooms at a time when COVID-19 cases are increasing and reaching new highs among students. The state requires 3-foot spacing between students in classrooms, in keeping with the latest CDC guidelines, but many districts had favored a higher 6-foot standard.
“It’s such a personal issue for each and every family, and it gets really treacherous,” said Malden School Committee member Michelle Luong, who lost a member of her own family to COVID-19. “This was a decision for our district to make.”
Her 16-year-old daughter had planned to return to Malden High School in the hybrid model, where students attend part time in partially occupied classrooms and learn from home on other days. But with the looming possibility that the state will ban hybrid plans at high schools as well, and order the return of regular schedules, Luong said her daughter now plans to keep learning remotely the rest of the year, because she would not feel safe in fully occupied classrooms.
Asciola, the fifth-grade math teacher in Malden, said last week he expected slightly more than half the students in his five classes to attend in person — about 80 of 130 — with the remaining 50 choosing to learn from home. To keep them all in sync, everyone in both groups will learn on screens.
Planning a lesson on fractions, he debated his options: Should he teach one lesson, or devise two versions — an onscreen-only lesson for the kids at home, and a second, more interactive approach for those present in the classroom — and then jump back and forth between the two?
“How do you keep the kids in the classroom from feeling like they came to school for no reason, without making the kids at home feel left out?” he asked.
He knew that technological problems might disrupt his plans. During the fifth-graders’ one week of hybrid learning before the full-time mandate, Asciola faced frequent school Internet glitches that cut him off from students at home.
“At some point, you can’t answer all the questions — everything is a guess, because we’ve never done this before,” he said. “So you walk in and do the best you can, and you try to make the kids feel safe and loved.”
Jennifer Hedrington, a seventh-grade math teacher in Malden, faced the same dilemmas when she returned to her classroom at the Ferryway School on Monday for the first time in a year. She hoped to figure out how to project her laptop screen onto the large TV in her classroom, so she could see her remote students without hovering over her computer. But she had no idea if there would be any tech support at school to help her implement her brainstorm.
She had prepared as best she could, buying dozens of lanyards to hand out to students to help them keep track of their masks, and a microphone amplifier so students at home could hear her better when she moved around the classroom.
But she knew there would be problems with no easy fixes, after a year of students learning in kitchens and bedrooms.
“For 13 months they’ve been able to eat when they want, and now, overnight, eating is on a strict schedule,” said Hedrington, the 2021 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. “There are going to be some angry kids.”
There were also happy kids in Malden Monday, including Beebe School second-grader Georgia Linehan, who headed off to school “all jazzed up” and came home “all tuckered out,” her mother said.
Like many parents whose children were settled into a hybrid learning model when the state issued its full-time mandate, Amanda Linehan agonized last month at the prospect of telling her outgoing 7-year old, then attending school two days a week, that she couldn’t go in person anymore. In the end, the Malden City Council member prioritized her only child’s social and emotional development, despite her concerns about pandemic fatigue, other people’s risky decisions, and the fact that most parents of school-age children still aren’t eligible for vaccinations.
“She’s an independent person, and I think even at 7, she craves having her own world again — a world with made-up names on the playground that only she and her friends know about,” said Linehan. “I can see her spirits lifting ... When I think about her day, it makes me happy for her.”