More than 10 months after schools closed due to the pandemic, Somerville’s public school students still do not know when they will set foot in their classrooms again.
In a town hall on Jan. 26, Somerville Public Schools and city of Somerville officials discussed plans for the eventual return to in-person learning but declined to give set start dates for any of the phases.
City officials cited major hurdles to in-person learning, one of which is that they are aiming to install upgraded air filters, as well as a number of other modifications to increase air circulation, in school buildings, but they are not done yet.
Rich Raiche, the city’s director of infrastructure and asset management, showed attendees projections that renovations at Somerville High School will be completed between this week and the middle of March. The work at a number of the city’s elementary and middle schools will be finished sometime between mid-February and the end of March, with others potentially not being finished until the end of August.
Somerville Public Schools will not reopen before the completion of the filtration projects, and because the city does not have set dates for when that will occur, it cannot offer parents and students a fixed return schedule.
“We acknowledge that it can be frustrating for the families because we’re not standing here and saying this is the date your student is going to this building,” Raiche said. “While we beg everyone’s forgiveness for that level of complexity … it’s the best and fastest way to get students back into the buildings with the least disruptions to the families.”
In November, the city announced a tentative in-person reopening plan that would have begun in December and under which most younger students would have been in hybrid instruction by now. However, delays in the filtration upgrades scuttled those plans.
Negotiations with the Somerville Educators Union, which represents the district’s teachers, are also putting a brake on reopening.
Though he told the attendees that all other unions representing Somerville Public Schools staff have reached agreements with the city, Andre Green, the Ward 4 School Committee chair, gave few details on the substance of the negotiations with the teachers.
“I think it is fair to say that it is our strong desire not to force teachers back, and a lot of what the negotiations are about is ‘what are the things we can do to reassure educators about the safety of our reopening plans?’” Green said.
The teachers union has continuously demanded the implementation of thresholds determining when to trigger remote learning before an in-person return. The district has repeatedly, and again at the Jan. 26 meeting, refused to comply.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone has followed a much more cautious approach to reopening schools than Gov. Charlie Baker and many surrounding communities.
In the Tuesday town hall, he and Superintendent Mary Skipper (LA’89, AG’96), thanked parents for their patience, but defended the city’s approach.
“There is absolutely no question that this has taken much longer than any of us wanted it to take,” Curtatone said. “But really given the unpredictability and still evolving nature of the virus, we are confident that this is still the right approach for our community.”
A hasty reopening could be worse than no reopening at all if it caused an outbreak and sent students back online, the mayor argued.
Pressure has grown in recent months to return students to the classroom. Parents have been raising concerns about the social and emotional toll of online learning for children in town halls since August. In the fall, a group of in-person advocates formed Somerville Parents for an Equitable and Safe Opening, a group that has over 380 members on Facebook.
Neighboring Medford Public Schools began a phased return to hybrid, in-person learning last September.
When the phased reopening eventually begins in Somerville, high-needs students, such as students with learning disabilities and English language learners, will come back to classrooms first and will be in-person every day except Wednesday, Skipper said. Students experiencing homelessness will also be considered.
A few weeks after that phase, preschoolers and kindergarteners would follow, with half attending on Monday and Tuesday and the other half attending on Thursday and Friday. On days when students are not physically in school, they will still engage in synchronous and asynchronous learning.
With exceptions, most high school students will not be back in school until at least April or May, Skipper said. She added that some students may not return to school at all this academic year.
Chad Mazza, assistant superintendent, noted that virtual learning will remain an option.
“Students whose families choose to remain remote … you will continue to be taught by a subgroup of [Somerville Public Schools] teachers,” Mazza said.