SALEM — The city's high school is returning to full in-person learning later this month, but families can still opt-out and stay remote, and they have until next Monday to do so.
Salem High will move students to either fully in-person or fully remote learning on Monday, April 26, Superintendent Stephen Zrike said at a School Committee meeting Monday night.
Students who attend school in-person twice a week and remotely the rest of the week must choose one way or the other via a survey that will be released by the district Tuesday morning, April 6, according to Zrike. Responses are due back by Monday, April 12, at 5 p.m. Families who are already fully remote or fully in-person don't need to respond.
"We're excited to be offering the possibility for our high school students to return five days a week," Zrike said. "Whatever option you choose is the option we're expecting you to remain in for the remainder of the school year."
Monday also marked another wave of students returning to in-person learning in city schools handling grades kindergarten through eight. Another 213 students returned district-wide in those grades, leaving about 19 percent of students — 553 in total — in those schools still learning remotely.
Meanwhile, as of Monday, the high school had about 60 percent of its population either attending class fully in-person or using a hybrid model to attend classes in-person twice a week, according to principal Samantha Meier.
This will present challenges for the high school, "as we do have a lot of students and some of our classes are larger," Zrike said. "Salem High is working really hard to maximize every space. That's why we want to hear directly from parents on what their choice is for the remainder of the year."
Some classrooms won't be able to ensure six feet of space between students because of size constraints. The majority of classes, however, will "still be able to be six feet," Zrike said.
"We'll continue to make sure we have seating charts for where students are sitting," Zrike said, "so contact tracing can be managed appropriately."
The district is also continuing to pool test staff and students, even those who have been vaccinated. Since Feb. 22, only four student pools had positive cases, while only two staff pools have had a positive test, according to the district.
The district has gradually brought more students back to in-person learning over the past year, but many have continued raising concerns about how the plans impact staff and teachers who are often older in age and more susceptible to serious complications from COVID-19 infection.
As such, teachers have been working to get vaccinated, with 92 percent of all staff and 93 percent of teachers reporting they've been vaccinated or have landed an appointment to do so. Meanwhile, 16 staff and 10 teachers have reported that they are "not interested in or able to get the vaccine at this time," according to the district.
The meeting saw limited public input, with one parent and one faculty member speaking.
Donna Fritz, a Summit Street resident and past School Committee candidate, said Monday was "an exciting day for my 5th and 8th graders. They said it had the same excitement as the first day of school. They are so happy to be able to go to school five days a week."
"Thank you to everyone who made this return possible for our students," Fritz said in a written comment. "Tonight, I will look forward to hearing about the high school's return to five days in-person, and I hope that this committee will encourage a return sooner rather than later."
Ann Berman, president of the Salem Teacher's Union, was quick to point out that the School Committee was still meeting "via Zoom rather than the School Committee meeting in person, and that's a problem."
Responding, Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the School Committee, said remote-only meetings are still necessary because of "the governor's order regarding the number of folks that can gather."
"There are 44 people on this meeting right now. We've had meetings with hundreds of folks in attendance," Driscoll said. "At present, there are still limitations on the number of people that can gather, and you know the size of the School Committee chambers."