Starting Monday, and through the rest of the coming week, thousands of area students will head back to class to begin a new academic year.
And thousands — won’t.
This fall, with the start of school already delayed well past the usual Labor Day deadline, public schools in the area covered by The Sun Chronicle will open with an eclectic mix of remote online instruction, in-classroom teaching and a so-called hybrid model that will put some students in socially-distanced classrooms for at least a couple of days a week and have them learning at home for the rest.
Area parochial schools and Bishop Feehan High School in Attleboro have been back in the classroom for the most part for a couple of weeks.
School and state officials have said they want to maximize the time students will spend in the classroom, with teachers and peers as the best thing for their education and social development. At the same time, the state’s largest teachers unions have expressed doubt that plans for in-person instruction are safe.
The state education department has reduced the formerly sacrosanct 180-day school year to 170 days. (In prior years districts going over the previously scheduled amount of snow days could find themselves holding classes well into June. Now it’s possible snow days themselves will be a thing of the past.)
In most districts, that’s allowed teachers and other staff nearly two weeks of instruction on new technology to reach students at home and safety protocols for the classroom.
Many had several weeks of practice with remote learning after schools were closed under Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order in March in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic in Massachusetts.
But no one really can be sure what this year will actually look like because there has not been a back-to-school week like this before.
School officials have made clear that they will be ready to reevaluate their plans based on a resurgence of the virus that could send all students to remote learning or an easing of the pandemic that might permit more students to return to class.
Nevertheless, school systems across the area say they are ready as they can be.
David Sawyer, superintendent of schools in Attleboro, says the nearly 6,000 students across 11 schools in the city are set to return under the hybrid model the school committee approved in August.
Sawyer says he’s not aware of any issues that could compromise that. He said the schools are tracking three confirmed cases of students who have tested positive for the coronavirus. “We are watching but we have not seen a cluster,” Sawyer said.
Talks with the city’s teachers unions are ongoing on the final details of the reopening. They will continue into this week, Sawyer says, as faculty begins instruction. “We are nearing that accord,” he said.
City schools have had to adjust their start times to accommodate the cleaning protocols for buses. The high school will start at 7:15 a.m., the middle schools at 8 a.m. and elementary schools will start at 8:45.
While the schools have set up the initial cohorts for the start of remote and in-person learning, Sawyer recently informed parents, it was only the “first step in a complicated process to even out cohort sizes at the classroom level, as well as respect the needs of families. Changes must be made under any circumstance as this initial split leaves many classes with significantly uneven groups.”
In Foxboro, nearly 2,500 local schoolchildren will return to classes Monday on that district’s own hybrid model.
“It is quite different from years past because we know we’re going to have a school year that is quite different than any that have gone before,” Superintendent Amy Berdos told school committee members recently. “What we do know is we have to meet the needs of our students.”
Unlike some districts, Foxboro has an agreement with members of the Foxboro Education Association over changes in work conditions prompted by COVID-19 precautions.
Most elementary students will attend school every day, with half reporting for 2-1/2 hours of in-classroom instruction each morning (8:45 to 11:15 a.m.), then returning home for remote learning from 12:30 to 3 p.m. The other half, assigned to an alternate schedule, will participate remotely during morning hours before reporting for in-classroom learning during the afternoon.
Middle and high schoolers will report for full-day classroom instruction twice weekly (either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday) while learning from home the remaining three days.
On Wednesdays, all middle and high schoolers will engage in remote learning, with live instruction taking up much of the day. On the remaining two remote learning days, students will be expected to complete assignments and other homework-related tasks.
In keeping with the safety protocols, school board members adopted a formal policy mandating the use of face coverings, which stipulates that face masks may be either reusable or disposable, but neck gaiters, bandanas and similar alternatives will not be allowed.
There will also be hybrid learning starts for elementary school students in Norfolk, and Wrentham on Monday. Plainville elementary schools won’t start until Thursday.
Seekonk, which plans to start classes Tuesday, saw a small bump in the road as it plans a return in hybrid mode. Aitken Elementary School will start the year with fully remote learning due to construction delays at the school building on Newman Avenue, school officials announced Thursday.
In North Attleboro, more than 4,000 students are set for a modified form of hybrid learning starting on Wednesday with a day of remote learning. Students from Kindergarten through high school will start the year in the hybrid model and an in-person model for preschoolers.
Half the town’s students will be back in the classroom on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other half on Thursdays and Fridays. The first day for preschool students attending the Early Learning Center will be Sept. 21.
Kindergarten will be full day and the schools have dropped tuition and fees for the school year. Also eliminated are bus fees and parking fees at the high school.
Superintendent Scott Holcomb said Friday that staff have been back in the schools for days now and, “we’ve had successful return to work,” for professional development. However, the district is still in talks with the North Attleboro Federation of Teachers as and Holcomb anticipates those talks continuing into this week.
“We’ve been going through all our training,” he said and the schools have “multiple layers to mitigate or prevent spread of the virus.”
A letter to parents from the school administration dated Friday urges them to keep checking on emails for updates as the opening date draws near.
Norton will also begin hybrid classes on Wednesday but it won’t be in the “crisis mode” of the spring, Superintendent Joseph Baeta said.
“The fact is, at the end of the day, the requirements that the teachers and the accountability that they have is at a whole different level. But it’s still not teaching and learning from what we know. Any private or public school should be doing it. It’s a different approach,” he told the Sun Chronicle last month.
The idea that the district could go remote at any time, Baeta said, further emphasizes the importance of building strong connections between students and teachers during the first few weeks of in-person classes.
Along with hybrid learning, the schools will offer a remote learning model as an option for parents, bujt they will be able to transition to in-person learning at any point, the school department says.
Three area school districts will get underway with fully remote learning. King Philip High School and Middle School students and all Mansfield grades will be starting the school year entirely online on Wednesday, as will Dighton-Rehoboth Regional students on Friday.
King Philip will begin with remote learning and transition into a hybrid model over four phases, the district has announced.
The “continuum of learning model will allow the district to seamlessly transition from a 100% remote learning model to a hybrid learning model,” the district said.
On Wednesday, the district will begin with all King Philip students participating in a remote curriculum. Teachers will have the opportunity to connect with their students remotely and allow the district to provide virtual training to the students on the safety procedures they will be required to follow once in person instruction returns.
The district will reassesses data and transition to in-person learning days beginning Oct. 15 if health conditions remain stable.
An attempt to reach a union representative for a comment on the remote plan was unsuccessful.
In Mansfield, most students will remain at home for remote learning until mid-October, school officials have decided.
“The school committee and district administration are committed to returning our students and staff to their classrooms in the safest way possible,” Superintendent Teresa Murphy told The Sun Chronicle last month. “To that end, the school committee voted for a reopening process that will be conducted using a multi-phase approach.”
Wednesday will be the first day of school for students in all grades.
“High needs students who received services in the school during the summer will return to their classrooms,” Murphy said. “Our goal is to transition to the hybrid model which will add in-person days to the remote learning for all students beginning the week of Oct 12.
The school system has produced a 122-page online guide to its reopening.
Dighton-Rehoboth Regional students will begin the academic year the latest with remote learning on Friday. The district plan, available on its website, says D-R schools aim to begin transitioning to a hybrid model by mid-October, according to Superintendent Anthony Azar, and have all students in hybrid mode by Nov. 12.