Whether it’s chaotic runs to Target for school supplies, annual photos in the driveway, or meticulous first-day-of-school outfit planning, families’ end-of-summer rituals are underway as dozens of Massachusetts school districts welcome thousands of students back to class this week.
A handful of districts, including in Worcester, Lexington, Revere, Malden, and Medford reopened their doors earlier this week, with other cities and towns scheduled to start classes Thursday. Boston, Cambridge, and Newton are among the school systems that don’t reopen until after Labor Day.
Between new friends, classes, and teachers, the start of the school year always brings plenty of transition and excitement for young students returning to the classroom, but here are some changes students can expect as they head into the new school year.
Free school meals
All K-12 students will continue to receive free school meals this year after the Legislature made the program a permanent part of the state budget.
The universal free meals program originally began as a federally funded initiative during the pandemic, allowing districts across the country to provide free meals to students when schools closed. When Congress stopped paying for the program last year, advocates pushed for Massachusetts to pick up for the tab for the state’s students. Lawmakers last year granted a one-year extension, but this year put $171.5 million in their budget to make the program permanent.
Advocates have lauded the move, noting children are unable to focus and learn when they’re sitting hungry in their classrooms, and called it a critical step in ending hunger in Massachusetts.
Many districts across the state have spent the summer making upgrades to school facilities. Massachusetts school districts have spent about half of their $2.6 billion in federal relief funds. While districts still have more than $1 billion left to spend in the next year, many have used the money to tackle needed infrastructure projects — particularly replacing outdated HVAC systems.
Boston Public Schools, for example, has installed over 4,000 air-conditioning units in 70 schools over the last two years, though it will fall short of its goal of having them in every classroom in time for the first day. Installation is ongoing at nine schools and 10 others will require major electrical upgrades to support AC installation. New Bedford and Worcester are also among the many districts that have made HVAC improvements with pandemic aid.
Springfield has used $50 million of its one-time relief funds toward kitchen upgrades, while Brockton spent $7 million to purchase its own buses. District leaders said the change would result in long-term savings and enable more students to access district resources, such as the high school’s planetarium.
“We tried to do as many one-time purchases as we could, things that you could spend the money on that will last for many years to go” said Aldo Petronio, Brockton schools’ chief financial officer.
While there is yet another COVID-19 variant, EG.5, causing a recent uptick in the virus, the state has not made any policy changes.
The state education department’s most recent guidance, issued last summer, said students and staff who are exposed to COVID need not isolate if they don’t have symptoms. The recommendations align with guidance issued last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Neither the Department of Public Health nor the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommend universal masking. Some districts have encouraged students and staff to mask when there’s an uptick in cases.
The state does encourage, but does not require, school-aged children to get vaccinated against the virus, and a new booster is expected this fall.
Catching kids up
Districts will continue efforts to catch students up on the learning they missed during the pandemic when schools shuttered. State test data is not yet available for the 2022-2023 school year, but some recent national data from the assessment and research organization NWEA showed a concerning reversal: after progress in the prior year, scores backslid in 2022-23.
Alongside facilities work, many districts’ federal relief funds have gone to academic recovery of one form or another, including tutoring, teacher training, and curriculum refreshes. This will be the last year that districts can use that money to keep on reading and math coaches, social workers and other staff hired to help with recovery, although some have planned ways to continue funding those positions.
In addition, beginning this year, schools are required to assess reading progress among students in kindergarten through at least third grade twice a year. The goal is to target efforts to improve early literacy. State education leaders said screenings may help teachers better identify struggling students and catch learning disabilities at earlier ages.
Red Line closures
Some Boston students who take the Red Line to school are expected to experience delays when the MBTA suspends service on the Red Line’s Ashmont branch and Mattapan Line for more than two weeks in October.
The closure, aimed at repairing tracks to speed up trains, will affect more than five miles of rail, covering 11 stations. Students who use the T to get to school could face longer commutes as shuttle buses replace the line during the closure.
Free shuttle buses will replace train and trolley service south of JFK/UMass Station from Oct. 14 to 29 while crews work to alleviate dozens of speed restrictions.
Boston Public Schools has yet to say how it will be responding to the shutdown, which is more than a month away. Last year, schools reopened in the middle of a 30-day shutdown for track repairs to the MBTA’s Orange Line. Students in Boston Public Schools who arrived late to classes due to the closure were not be penalized.
“Our team is currently working with our partners at the City and MBTA to ensure appropriate supports are in place for students during the upcoming Red Line shutdown” said Dan Rosengard, Boston schools transportation chief, during a back-to-school community meeting Monday night.