Beverly Schools ponder reopening plan

Superintendent Suzanne Charochak and Beverly School Committee are exploring the ways to open in the fall.

[Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a correction in the author of a resolution about reimbursement of COVID-19 expenses.]

BEVERLY — Should desks be 3 feet apart? 6 feet? How about a compromise at 4½ feet?

Those are among the many decisions facing Beverly school officials as they plan for the reopening of school in the fall, Superintendent Suzanne Charochak told the School Committee this week.

"We will be reopening," Charochak said. "We just aren't sure how we will be reopening."

Charochak appeared before the committee to provide an update on the school reopening planning process, which is being guided by recommendations from the state. She said she will return to the School Committee with three options and then again in early August with the final plan, which the committee must approve.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is requiring each school district to plan for three possibilities for the fall reopening — in-person learning, a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, and 100% remote learning. The focus should be "first and foremost" on getting students back into school buildings, according to guidelines provided by the state.

Charochak said the goal is to have as many students as possible in school for in-person learning. For students who are unable or unwilling to return to school, she said, there will be a "remote learning academy" in which students can learn online. Charochak said more details on that plan are coming, but said it would be "different" than the online learning model that was used in the spring when schools were closed due to the coronavirus.

The school district is sending a survey to families of schoolchildren to solicit their feedback on the various options.

School Committee member Kelley Ferretti said she appreciated all of the planning, but she has heard from many people who are concerned about sending their children back to school amid the pandemic.

"It's hard for people to wrap their heads around the idea of having thousands of kids go back into a building," Ferretti said. The risk of even one child dying "is just not worth it," she said.

Charochak replied that students will have a remote learning option if parents feel it is unsafe for their child to attend in-person.

"I breathed a big sigh of relief when the Department of Education allowed us to have that option," the superintendent said.

Charochak's presentation said all students in grades 2 to 12 will be required to wear masks, and masks will be "strongly recommended" for kindergartners and first-grade students. All adults in the schools will be required to wear masks. Every school will be supplied with masks, gloves, hand sanitizers and screen guards for high-traffic areas, and signage and decals will guide movement within the buildings.

Charochak presented an analysis that looked at how many desks each school could fit in a classroom at the three different distances, and how many classrooms would be needed. Ayers Ryal Side, for example, would need a total of 33 classrooms in order to have desks 6 feet apart; the school has only 22. But at 3 feet apart, it would need only 19 classrooms.

Charochak said the 6-foot social distancing protocols were an "exercise in math rather than practicality."

The Beverly Public Schools has received a grant of $477,284 from the federal government's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund to help pay for the costs of dealing with COVID-19 and equity issues related to that. Some of that money will be used to pay for a newly created position called the director of opportunity, access and equity. The School Committee voted to approve the new position, which will have a salary of $117,000. The director will support students from lower socioeconomic subgroups, students of color and students with disabilities, among other duties.

On Monday, the School Committee also unanimously passed three resolutions, two of which were written by members John Mullady and Lorinda Visnick. One resolution — from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and which was introduced by committee chair Rachael Abell — called for the state to guarantee every school district full reimbursement for state-mandated COVID-19 expenses. Another affirmed the district's commitment to "establish a curriculum based on racial justice." And the third recognized Juneteenth as an annual celebration of the end of slavery in the United States.

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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