Across the North Shore, students, parents and teachers will be navigating a mix of in-person learning and remote instruction when schools reopen next month.
Those plans, which have only just been decided in recent weeks and days, are subject to change based on the trajectory of the pandemic. Case in point, on Wednesday, Salem school officials were forced to reverse course from their decision two days earlier to pursue a hybrid model for the fall.
This was due to a recent uptick in coronavirus cases in Salem, based on the latest case data, that now raised the city's risk level to a hot spot in Massachusetts. The Salem schools will now begin remotely. Next door in Lynn, another hot spot for COVID cases, officials had already chose remote learning.
Meanwhile, the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School Committee is set to vote Friday afternoon on a plan that, officials say, has been updated on a near-daily basis, while Peabody officials will vote Aug. 18.
The preferred plan from administrators in both districts is for a hybrid model with alternating days in-person for different groups of students. On days they're not in school, students would learn remotely.
The common refrain from these superintendents and others is that it isn't feasible to bring all students back at once while implementing social distancing measures and other health and safety requirements at school.
This is also amid the backdrop of a strong push by teachers' unions to forgo in-person activities and start the school year virtually, only gradually phasing back into the classroom, for fear that staff and students' safety will be at risk.
School committees in Massachusetts have been tasked with deciding among three paths: in-person instruction, remote only, or a hybrid model.
In many cases, local school officials are choosing hybrid models that prioritize in-person teaching as much as possible with younger students while continuing remote learning with older students. They cite studies that show younger students appear to be lower risk for transmission of COVID-19, while older students transmit the virus like adults.
Even within these hybrid models, there are differences between districts on how many days students will attend in-person and for how many hours. For families that do not feel comfortable sending their children to school for whatever reason, remote learning academies will be offered in each district.
Looming in the background is the potential for everyone to be learning from home again if COVID-19 infection rates skyrocket this fall and winter. Officials are quick to assure parents that remote learning this time around will be a vast improvement over last spring.
What school districts are planning
In Beverly, after lengthy debate, the School Committee opted for a model that puts K-4 students in their schools five mornings a week with dismissal for lunch and then finishing the day with remote instruction. Meanwhile, fifth- and sixth-graders will attend class two days a week and learn from home on the remaining three days; the two grades will be split in half, with students designated in one of two cohorts that will attend class in person on either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. As for grades 7-12, they will start the year with remote learning only. The first day of school will be Sept. 16.
Danvers will follow a hybrid model for two days of in-person learning and three days of remote. The student body would be split in two cohorts, one in school Mondays and Tuesdays and the other in school Thursdays and Fridays. Each cohort would then have three days of remote instruction. Wednesday would be used for small-group instruction and checking in online with students. Teachers would also check in on students on all remote days, which would follow the school schedule. The first day of school will be Sept. 16.
The Salem Public Schools will now start the year with preschool through 12th grade all learning remotely. Teachers union president Ann Berman said the union would begin negotiating with the district Friday on a memorandum of agreement going forward. Under the previous hybrid plan, K-12 grades were supposed to start Sept. 14, while preschool would begin Sept. 16. The district had also planned a weeklong break in early November to reassess the situation.
At Salem Academy, a public charter school for grades 6-12, the plan is to start the year remotely and then gradually, one grade at a time, transition into a hybrid model. By mid-November, they hope to have grades 6-9 on hybrid learning and reassess the situation at that time.
Marblehead schools will start remotely with a slow return to a hybrid model, according to Superintendent John Buckey. The School Committee voted 5-0 to adopt this plan. Schools would reopen Sept. 14 for all-remote learning through Oct. 2. Students who are special needs or receive English language services may receive small group in-person instruction. Starting Oct. 5, the schools would gradually reintroduce in-person learning and extracurriculars with increased health and safety measures. There would be two cohorts of students districtwide, with each cohort receiving two days a week of four-hour in-person teaching either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday, with an additional four hours of in-person instruction every other Wednesday.
The Swampscott School Committee voted 5-0 for a phased reopening plan that begins with remote learning Sept. 16, except for students with high needs, and transitions to a mix of in-person and remote learning on Oct. 26. The district is also proposing COVID-19 testing for all faculty and staff. The first day of school on Sept. 16 will be in-person for special needs, English language learners and students who weren't engaged in the spring. On Oct. 26, depending on guidance from health officials, the plan is to move to an in-person hybrid model. Elementary, middle and high school will be structured according to different models and schedules. At Swampscott High, two cohorts of students would alternate two days in school, three days remote, while the third cohort (high-needs students) would be in school each day. The hybrid in-person schedule for the middle school and elementary schools will have morning and afternoon sessions with students in school four days a week with Wednesday as remote learning.
Ipswich's School Committee voted for a hybrid approach on Aug. 6, said Superintendent Brian Blake. He is now working on the details of that plan, which will involve students in grades 3-12 attending classes two days a week in cohorts — one cohort will attend on Monday and Tuesday and the other on Thursday and Friday. Everyone will take part in remote learning on Wednesday, as well as on the days when the other cohort is attending live classes. Students in pre-kindergarten through grade two will also attend school under a hybrid model, but will be in classrooms more days than the older students. Once complete, the plan will be posted on the district's "Return to Learn 2020" web page and submitted to the state.
Essex Technical High School in Danvers is moving forward with a hybrid plan that will alternate between students being on campus and learning at home every other day. This will allow students to be taught in person by their teachers and then the following day, students will work remotely from home but again with their teacher live through a virtual classroom where attendance will be required, according to officials. School begins Sept. 16.
The Masconomet Regional School District, which serves Boxford, Middleton and Topsfield for middle school and high school, will open for the fall on Sept. 21 with a full remote learning schedule. The district plans to revisit this decision on Oct. 7, at which point it may be decided to shift into a hybrid model or stay remote based on local COVID-19 trends. Students with high needs, however, may still attend in person during the initial phase. Middle school students will be issued district-owned Chromebooks while high school students will continue to purchase technology through the district's 1:1 Digital Learning Plan.
At the three towns' elementary schools, which are part of the Tri-Town School Union, Middleton plans to start the year fully in-person with students while Topsfield and Boxford will begin fully remote and try to phase into a hybrid model. The first day of school in all three towns will be Sept. 16, except for kindergarten, which hasn't been determined.
Staff writers Ethan Forman, Dustin Luca and Julie Manganis contributed to this report.