SALEM — School districts on the North Shore, nevermind across the country, are facing a delicate debate on how to handle school this fall, be it in-person learning or remote education. That leaves local leaders caught in "the summer of no good choices."
"When choosing between imperfect choices in the summer of no good choices, I understand the risks of remaining home are so high," said Salem School Committee member Amanda Campbell. "But I'm worried the risk of an in-person opening is even higher, and I don't want to take those risks."
The COVID-19 pandemic famously forced a hiatus on traditional public education this past year. As the summer rolls on districts are discussing how to handle school in the fall, with pressure from the federal government favoring a full in-person reopening.
The School Committee held a working meeting Wednesday night to broadly outline the developing plan for classes this fall. A full presentation with recommendations is set for Tuesday, Aug. 4, with a follow-up meeting on Thursday, Aug. 6, to hear from the public before three sets of plans and how they'll be implemented is sent to the state by Aug. 10.
The presentation Wednesday night went into survey results that polled Salem families and school staff to determine the comfort level with the options to be discussed. In Salem, families with elementary school-aged children tend to favor students returning to in-person learning this fall. High school families prefer remote learning. Middle school families seem to sit in the middle, evenly split between the two.
The meeting explored what three possible scenarios look like. In-person learning, for example, would have all students seated six feet apart, which would be possible in all of Salem's schools but also require the creation of more classrooms and use of more staff, according to the presentation.
Full-time remote learning would take the district's plans from this past year and enhance them to improve the tracking of attendance and grades, assigning adult mentors to students, and standardizing practices, the presentation outlined.
Then, a third option was presented: a "hybrid learning" model that gives students the best of both worlds. Overall, students would be broken into four groups, with a main two flip-flopping with two days in person and three days remotely. One group would be in the building on Mondays and Tuesdays while the other is there Thursday and Friday. Both groups would be home working remotely on Wednesdays, allowing a deep cleaning of all buildings.
That option also gives priority to a leading group of students who require in-person services and, therefore, would be in school for all days but Wednesday. Then, a fourth group would exist for families who would opt their children into learning remotely only — never setting foot in a building.
Plans were presented with a clear warning: Salem's schools are anticipating "the likely need to transition to remote, recognizing that if we open in person, it is not if but when it will happen."
Some see the need to assume that COVID-19 will rebound and slam the region back into full closures this fall.
"I'm thinking through the plan for remote learning," committee member Ana Nuncio said, explaining that individual schools need to get ahead on the work of ensuring all students have Chromebooks and Internet by mid-fall. "Because I'm fairly certain all of us are going to have to go into remote learning at that time."
Even beyond that, committee member Kristin Pangallo — a chemistry professor with a grasp on how pandemics work — outlined one further concern with the in-person model: critically risking teacher health when students are only in buildings two days a week, but teachers are double that.
"If we come up with a situation where our staff is safe," Pangallo said, "our students will be safe."