Reopening Peabody's schools requires more staff

Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala

PEABODY — The reopening of Peabody's school buildings this fall — while still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — will require additional staff to make things work, says Superintendent Josh Vadala.

In addition to asking the School Committee to approve a new grade 4 teacher at the Carroll School and an adjustment counselor at the Higgins Middle School, Vadala, during a committee special meeting held remotely Friday, updated the board on possible building reopening scenarios when schools reopen on Aug. 31. No plan has been finalized yet.

"In order to reopen, we know that we are going to need school adjustment counselors and we are going to need some classroom teachers at the elementary level due to the size of the class and some of the restrictions we have," he said. 

The immediate need was for a fourth-grade teacher at the Carroll, and possible positions at the Center, South and McCarthy schools. 

Working within the $74.8 million budget approved at the end of June, Vadala said the schools could afford to add at least two positions — the fourth-grade teacher and middle school adjustment counselor.

"We do know that as kids return to school, they are going to have experienced a lot of trauma and there will be a need for more social and emotional learning from the kids," he said.

The counselor would also act as the "education stability liaison" for the district, making this person the point of contact for students who are in foster care or who may be homeless. The district is required to have someone in these roles, and the person who held this position has retired, and these duties were assigned to another member of the staff.

"I think this would clean it up and really have a social worker on board to do that work," Vadala said. It's possible, as they learn more about the budget, that he might be back to ask for additional positions, he said. The School Committee unanimously approved the hiring of both positions.

Reopening scenarios

On the reopening, Vadala said the schools surveyed faculty, staff and families, and the response from families was impressive, he said. The district heard from 3,100 families, representing 4,800 of the district's 6,000 students. It was nearly 75% of all students.

They have also heard from more than 600 staff. The district is compiling the survey, which is scheduled to be presented to the School Committee on Aug. 4. 

On Friday, the schools' reopening task force planned to talk about guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regarding protocols for a student or faculty member who tests positive for COVID-19, as well as transportation and facilities. The district has until Aug. 10 to submit its reopening plans to the state, and a July 31 deadline to submit a one-page document outlining its reopening feasibility study.

"From a feasibility standpoint, we could fit all the students in our buildings with 3-foot distancing if we were to bring the kids back face-to-face in person," Vadala said.

However, there has been conflicting information from medical experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is recommending 6-feet of social distancing in schools. Vadala said he was unsure if it would be feasible to safely bring back students and staff at 3-foot distancing.

"Physically, we can put the desks in the room and arrange them for all students to be in. The high school is extremely tight. I don't know that we would be able to do that safely with all the staff members that we have," Vadala said. 

The second option would be to have a hybrid mix of remote learning and in-person instruction.

"If we went to 6-feet, we would be able to do a hybrid," he said.

About 60% of students would be brought back at a time, with at least 50% in every classroom. Vadala proposed several options, a week on and a week off, two days on, Wednesday full remote, and two days off, and a half-day model. Families and faculty seemed to prefer two days on and two days off, he said, but there has been no decision on this.

The district is also close to securing a grant to provide Chromebooks for all students, with the aim of getting the devices in students' hands by the first day of school.


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