With about eight weeks until the start of the school year, Watertown School officials continue to prepare for three different scenarios — in-person teaching, remote learning, or a mix of the two. Superintendent Dede Galdston told the School Committee Monday that with “the sands shifting everyday” she will not know which of the three will be used until sometime in August.
Massachusetts education officials presented district with guidelines and asked them to come up with plans for how to operate schools in each of the three scenarios.
Galdston said that while it is not clear which of the three will be used for the district as a whole, the Watertown Public Schools must prepare for remote learning because some students will be choosing that option no matter what.
If the schools do return in person, they could try to welcome everyone back, or have students rotate when days they are in school by the day or the week, Galdston said.
Social Distancing in Class
When in classes, the state guidelines call for a preferred 6 feet distance between students, but allows for as little as 3 feet.
“We are going to aim for 6 feet, that is our goal,” Galdston said. “Certainly, no closer than 4, and 5 or 6 feet is what we are aiming for. And with mask being worn at all times, except when there is a mask break and there is 6 feet of distance between students.”
School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read, who is also a teacher in Cambridge, said she does not like the idea of having students being less than 6 feet apart.
“Why is 6 feet acceptable as the barrier in every other social context, but I just heard we are limiting it to 4 feet?” Rayman-Reed said. “This, to me, is beyond unacceptable. The idea we are asking our students, our staff and everyone in our in the community to accept a less stringent safety guideline than in a grocery store or on the beach, to me, is baffling. To me it is not something that can be considered.”
Galdston clarified that in a hybrid system, were some students are in class and some are participating remotely, that the limit will be 6 feet. The state, she said, requires districts to do a feasibility study looking at a 6 foot limit down to a 3 foot limit.
Heather McManus, a resident and parent of an incoming kindergartner, said that the state’s guidelines “misrepresent and misinterpret” a study on the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
McManus, a research scientist who did her doctorate in microbiology and immunology, said the state, “claims that schools do not appear to have played a significant role in COVID transmission. This is not only not supported by current evidence, it is also not supported in the primary scientific article that the reopening plan cites when making the claim.”
She noted that the scientific article used by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, included a French high school where 25 percent of students at one tested positive for COVID-19.
Another parent, Rachel Danford, encouraged the schools to look for ways to make extensive use of outdoor space when doing lesson with students. Danford, who works with Schoolyard Green America to come up with ways schools can use their outdoor space, suggested the district prepare by creating coverings to protect students and teachers from the sun and rain, as well as buying rolling carts for materials and clipboards so papers don’t blow away.
Rayman-Read said that she, and other teachers she knows, desperately want to get back to teaching students the classroom, and believes that remote learning is not an adequate substitute. However, she is concerned about opening schools while the pandemic is still going on and there is no vaccine or cure.
“As a parent and teacher, I’m scared for the lives of our colleagues, the lives our students and our community members,” Rayman-Read said. “I updated my will this summer and updated my life insurance, because I am returning to the classroom in the fall. We are asking educators to put their lives on the line. … We must acknowledge that reopening schools means that people might die. This is an inescapable.”
To prepare for that, the Watertown schools have ordered protective gear for students and teachers.
“Students in grade 2-12 are going to wear masks. For students in Pre-K to 1, we have purchased an option with a hat with a shield, or some may feel comfortable wearing a mask,” Galdston said. “Yes, I think people are wondering if kids will keep that hat on their head, but we think that they are more apt to do that than wearing a mask.”
Teachers will have their choice of personal protection equipment (PPE): a mask, a face shield with a mask or full PPE.
The WPS has also ordered supplies, Galdston said, and each student will get a box of supplies. That way, families do not have to purchase them, and students do not have to share. At the high school, she added, UV cabinets have been purchased so that they can put in items that might have to be shared, such as calculators.
“We can do some quick disinfecting during the middle of the day,” Galdston said.
Making the Decision
How the Watertown Schools will start the school year will be decided in August, Galdston said. The district has put together a Reopening Task Force to plan for how to approach the start of school in September.
Some of the work that has been done includes surveying students, teachers and parents about their experiences in the spring after schools shutdown, and asking them what they want to see in the fall. So far, about half the parents have responded to the district survey, “but the goal is 75 percent, because it is that important. If we are building a plan based on the feedback we need to reach out and make sure all families fill out the survey.”
The survey was sent to parents in a MailChimp email, and Galston said she would resend it from her account. Also, the survey is being translated into different languages for students in the English as a Second Language program. Others have emailed her for the link (firstname.lastname@example.org).
School Committee Chairman John Portz asked whether the School Committee should add a meeting at the end of July to update the community on the planning for reopening. Town Council President Mark Sideris said he thought that was a good idea to make sure people have the latest information as the planning evolves. The meeting will likely be July 27, Portz said, followed by a meeting on Aug. 10 when the final plan would be presented and the School Committee would vote on it.