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As Gov. Baker Continues Push For In-Person Schools, Springfield Advances Tentative Plans To Reopen

Gov Charlie Baker in a school classroom
Nicolaus Czarnecki

      The School Committee in Springfield, Massachusetts has given thumbs up to a tentative plan to return to in person learning for the first time in almost a year. 

       The second-largest public school system in the state is now eyeing a return to school on March 15th for students with special needs while children in pre-school, kindergarten, 1st, 6th, 9th and 12th grades would return to classrooms on April 12th, according to Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick.

  "This is all based on the COVID rates throughout the city and we will be consulting with our health commissioner on that before we reopen," said Warwick.

   Springfield’s 26,000 public school students have not set foot in a classroom since last March.

   The School Committee voted in August to begin the school year fully remote.  In December, they voted to extend full remote learning through the third marking period.

        At that December meeting, the committee members urged the administration to prioritize, if possible, an earlier phased-in return to in-person classes for groups that have struggled with remote education including special education students and English language learners.

      They said vocational-technical students should also be considered a priority to return to school so they can demonstrate hands-on skills that are necessary to secure a certificate to work in certain trades.

      To prepare to reopen school buildings, the city is spending $1.5 million on new technology and upgrades to improve air ventilation.

     "This will benefit us for years after this COVID situation because the ventilation systems will be improved and will help us in the future," said Warwick.

       Because Springfield and other large urban school districts in Massachusetts have not held in person classes, only about half the state’s 900,000 public school students have physically been in a classroom at any point during this academic year.

      Gov. Charlie Baker has repeatedly pressed for a return to in person education insisting the science shows schools are not super spreaders of the coronavirus if precautions such as mask-wearing and social-distancing are taken. 

       On Thursday, Baker toured Bentley Academy, a K-5 school in Salem, and later described creative methods he saw where a teacher had one group of students on a Zoom call and another group in the classroom.  

       "She was teaching to both at the same time," Baker said.  “And I think the thing I took away from our visit there is, if you really want to make this happen, and you are willing to try, and to be creative, and to take advantage of the resources and the guidance that’s available out there, you can get a lot of this done.”

        The state’s teachers unions have called on the Baker administration to give higher priority to vaccinating school staff.  

        Baker said teachers will be vaccinated after other priority groups.

        “Teachers are in the first group of what I would describe as other employees, essential workers,” said Baker. “Depending on how quickly we can get folks who are 75-plus and 65-plus and the folks with multiple comorbidities through the system, they come right after that,” said Baker. “But, it’s hard for me to understand when we look at the data and we talk to the experts that we should be organizing this in a way that’s any different than the way we set it up. I think we set it up with the right priorities.”

        State education officials hope that a new weekly pool testing program for the coronavirus will encourage more local schools to reopen.  The way this works is samples from all children and staff in a classroom are mixed together and tested.  If it comes back positive, individual rapid tests are given.

      120 school districts have so far signed up for the pool testing.



Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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