SALEM — Months of planning for an unpredictable school year take effect Monday, when classes in Salem start for the first time since the shutdown in March due to the coronavirus.

"We're excited as we always are to see our kids," said Ann Berman, president of Salem Teacher's Union and music teacher at Bates Elementary School. "There's a lot of anxiety around unanswered questions that can't be answered until we start putting things into place and find out what's working and what isn't working, then being able to change quickly if we realize that a protocol that was put into place isn't going to work. We need to be ready to change what we're doing, and that's going to be really tough."

"We're exhausted," Berman added, "and school hasn't even started yet."

School for most Salem children begins Monday, Sept. 14, with kindergarten and pre-K students starting Wednesday, Sept. 16.

To begin the school year, the district had planned for all grades to start learning remotely. But 440 of the district's enrolled 3,948 students will be attending class in person. That's more than half of 838 "Tier 1" high-needs students who were offered invitations to learn in person. The students range from those with special educational needs that require in-person attention to children who don't have reliable Internet access at home and must, therefore, forego remote learning.

Pieces of the district's plans are still coming together. To date, the schools have spent more than $250,000 on protective gear. But at the end of the final week of summer, new schools Superintendent Steve Zrike said the district is as ready as it can be.

"We have signage throughout the buildings — capacity signage on doors," Zrike said. "We've set up sanitizer stations in strategic spots around the buildings, exits outside the bathrooms, and of course every classroom got supplies."

There are some loose ends. After a districtwide assessment of school building air quality over the summer, HVAC work hasn't yet wrapped up at Bentley Academy Innovation School on Memorial Drive and Horace Mann Laboratory School on Willson Street. The issue also impacts the Early Childhood Center, which operates out of the Horace Mann building. 

That means 117 students assigned to those buildings will start school elsewhere. 

Fifty Bentley students will start at Saltonstall School, Zrike said, while 36 Horace Mann students will work out of Salem High and 31 children at the Early Childhood Center will begin instead at Bates.

"That's temporary, and we hope to give updates to families in the next two weeks or so on what the timeline is" for going back to assigned schools, Zrike said. "The School Committee was very clear in our August meeting that we were going to do this assessment, and it was going to guide us on whether it was safe to bring students and staff back into the buildings."

Berman applauded the decision, though she noted Bentley and Horace Mann teachers who don't have any in-person students still have the option of working remotely from those buildings if they choose.

"The right move is that they aren't opening those buildings Monday," Berman said. "They're doing exactly what we as a union expected, which is safe schools and systems that have been checked."

The district is still working on getting Chromebooks to all students who need them, according to Zrike. About 200 devices are awaiting distribution, and another 1,671 are on back-order. The next delivery of Chromebooks is expected the last week of September.

"We're carefully watching and hopeful we have enough to get the year started at this point and believe we'll be able to meet the majority of demand," Zrike said. "We're still taking donations from folks if it's less than two years old, has an 11-inch screen, runs Google Chrome and has a keyboard."

There's still hope that the setup launching Monday won't last all year. Officials are already looking ahead to Nov. 2 to 6, a districtwide vacation scheduled to allow officials to reassess the situation and make changes if necessary.

"I continue to worry about our pre-K to (grade) 3 students being able to access remote learning independently," Zrike said, adding that discussions on bringing more students back to in-person school will also begin Monday. "What's important is we have that November break built into the calendar. It'll give us an opportunity to assess. It sounds far away, but it'll be here, and it'll give us an opportunity to pivot."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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