With just six weeks before the presumptive launch of the 2020-21 school year, local administrators are echoing state officials who maintain that getting students safely back into classrooms this September remains the top priority.
But absent further direction from the state Department of Education, educators face the unenviable task of juggling three different back-to-school scenarios — each with layers of uncertainties, health and logistical challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.
Previewing the fall reboot for school committee members Monday afternoon, Superintendent Amy Berdos said the razor-thin time frame, combined with shifting viewpoints on health and safety practices, has made a complex planning challenge even more difficult.
“It is a question mark. There’s no way to say that it’s not,” Berdos admitted. “Needless to say, we are meeting every day [but] we are waiting on so many factors and unknowns.”
Identified three weeks ago in a memo from state education czar Jeffrey Riley, the three alternatives include a return to in-classroom learning with strict safety requirements, a hybrid system with students rotating between in-school and at-home settings, and an extension of last spring’s remote learning program.
Each of these three options must be able to accommodate special education students while having built-in adaptability to shift gears should health conditions suddenly change.
Berdos said that a “non-binding” version of Foxboro’s back-to-school plans must be submitted to state officials by July 31, but added a final decision is not expected until mid-August.
With the outcome likely to remain in flux for the next several weeks, Assistant Superintendent Alison Mello said that teachers are preparing to deal with in-person, hybrid or all-remote learning scripts.
“Regardless of the setting, we want instruction and engagement to be as effective as possible,” Mello said.
Meanwhile, Berdos said last spring’s experience with remote learning demonstrated forcefully that students learn best in a classroom setting. Ideally, she added, this could be accomplished with modifications to building infrastructure, scheduling and logistics, while promoting hand washing and appropriate use of protective equipment.
“We have oodles of masks and lots of hand sanitizer,” Berdos said.
But even if this best-case scenario is possible, significant obstacles — and in some cases, personal sacrifices — loom.
Many hurdles stem from the need for social distancing, which at present entails a minimum three-foot separation when wearing face coverings, and six feet without. Meeting these requirements in an in-person setting would affect how classrooms are arranged, lunches are served and, most of all, how students are transported, officials said.
According to school Business Administrator William Yukna, a three-foot separation would limit seating capacity on school buses to roughly 26 students, meaning that current ridership could no longer be accommodated in its entirety.
At present, elementary bus routes average 55 students, somewhat less for middle and high schools.
The only practical solution, Yukna said, would be suspending Foxboro’s long-standing practice of transporting students living more than a mile from their respective schools and adopting a two-mile radius instead.
“The only way we get to 26 students is to go to a two-mile radius,” Yukna said, adding that all school buses will be cleaned after completing every route. “There is virtually no way of making one-mile work from a transportation point of view.”
While recognizing that such a change could create hardships for families who would need to make their own transportation arrangements, board member Tina Belanger said the school department’s transportation policy could be amended as a temporary measure.
“At the end of the day, transportation is not something that we are required by law to provide,” Belanger observed.
That same three-foot minimum distance requirement also would impact classroom instruction, particularly in lower grades, by eliminating the practice of seating small groups of students around tables. Instead, classroom settings would revert to those of past generations with symmetrical rows of desks all facing the front of the room.
Face coverings will be mandatory in any event, Berdos said, and teachers in grades K-7 with instructional materials on carts would rotate among classrooms instead of students moving from room to room, presumably reducing the chances for virus transmission.
Students in grades 8-12 will continue to move between classrooms during the school day, Berdos added, with signage in hallways and other protocols to help promote social distancing.
While reiterating the desirability of in-classroom learning, Berdos acknowledged that a hybrid approach with students rotating between in-school and at-home settings would solve many challenges by effectively halving the number of students in school buildings at a given time.
For that same reason, it also would resolve the bus transportation issue, Yukna said.
Mindful that classroom technology will be critical regardless of which option is selected, the school department has purchased laptops for each student, a prospect Mello described as a “game changer.”
In other related matters, Yukna said that custodial staff will be deployed in different ways and on different schedules, depending on changing needs for cleaning and sanitization, while Berdos stressed that all faculty and staff will undergo mandatory training on new health and safety protocols.
She concluded her briefing with a plea for patience from anxious parents.
“Everybody is bringing their best ideas to the table,” Mello observed. “But we can’t expect teachers to come out of the gate and be perfect at this.”