The largest public school district in western Massachusetts will seek a waiver if the state orders a return next month to in-person learning five days a week.
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley is seeking to mandate the return of all elementary students to in-person learning five days per week beginning in April.
Later this month, Riley intends to ask the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to reverse regulations that were implemented in response to the pandemic and “take remote and hybrid learning models off the table.”
In Springfield, where the district’s 26,000 students have not set foot in a classroom in almost a year now, Superintendent of Schools Dan Warwick is proposing that elementary school children return initially on a part-time basis.
"For communities like ours that are in remote right now, the hybrid (model) would be an appropriate transition, so we are going to prepare that waiver and submit it," said Warwick, adding " our kids will be coming back April 5th regardless."
The waiver request will cite Springfield’s continued ranking as “high risk” for coronavirus spread as determined by the state health department and the desire to keep six feet of separation in classrooms.
Under a plan being considered by the Springfield School Committee, grades pre-k through five would return on April 5th along with highest need special education students, students with limited or interrupted formal education, and vocational technical high school students.
There would be a phased return to the classrooms for grades six through eight followed by high school students, but the plan does not give a specific timetable.
Under the state’s proposed mandate, parents can opt to stay with remote learning for the rest of the school year, said Warwick.
"Right now we are in the process of surveying all of our parents and it looks like right about 50 percent of the parents want their kids to come back in at this point," said Warwick.
Preparations have been underway for months in Springfield to reopen schools sometime this spring. The district is fully stocked with personal protective gear, according to Warwick. Facilities director Pat Sullivan said a $1.4 million project has been completed to upgrade the air ventilation in every classroom.
"I want every parent to know we have the proper air systems now in place in our school buildings," said Sullivan.
As an additional safety step, Springfield plans to join the state’s pool testing program for schools. Pool testing combines samples taken from multiple people at once into a single bundle. If it comes back positive, individuals are then retested to determine who has contracted the virus.
About a third of the state’s schools have signed up for pool testing.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker visited a middle school in Newburyport to thank officials there for being early adopters of the testing program.
"To get to the point where this thing is really starting to rock and roll is a real pleasure, I think, for all of us who were looking to find a realatively uncomplicated way for schools to implement a weekly surveillance program," Baker said.
Baker, for months now, has stressed he believes it is imperative to bring children back to school in person.
"Over the course of the last 12 months, its been incredibly challenging for kids, for families, for teachers, for schools to work their way through all this and to find a way to try to keep kids engaged, involved, and growing and learning despite the difficulties that have come with the pandemic," he said.
Roughly 20 percent of Massachusetts school districts – with about 400,000 students – have been fully remote since the start of the pandemic.