Somerville opened a new high school on March 4, welcoming only a group of younger students in high needs special education programs into the building, as part of Somerville Public Schools’ ongoing phased return to in-person learning.
The first days of in-person learning at the new high school have gone well, according to Susana Hernandez Morgan, chief communications and development officer for SPS.
Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone celebrated the opening of the new building in a press release, yet acknowledged and lamented the fact that many high school students will not have access to the building at the moment.
“To our high school students and families, I want you to know we are working on options to get you access to the building sooner, and of course we look forward to when it will be safe for all of our students to return to their usual schools,” Curtatone said. “For now, I want to recognize your sacrifice and thank you for allowing our highest needs students into the space as we work toward broader opening.”
The students currently learning in the new building are attending in person four days per week, two hours each day, with remote learning on Wednesdays.
A second group of students, which began in-person instruction Thursday, will attend school in person four days per week for the full day. They will also learn remotely on Wednesdays. The group includes additional populations of high needs students and multilingual learning lab students in grades 9–12, among others.
Morgan explained that SPS has instituted a comprehensive set of health and safety measures as it welcomes more students into classrooms. Though it took Somerville a longer time to establish these guidelines than expected, Morgan noted that they will help minimize risk as students and staff return to school buildings.
“The work required to bring buildings to the high standards that were established has taken longer than any of us anticipated or would have liked, but given the incessant nature of this virus, it was important that we maintain a focus on the safety of our students and staff,” Morgan wrote in an email to the Daily.
In addition to the populations returning to in-person school on March 4 and March 18, other Somerville students will gradually return in person through the rest of March and April. All students between pre-kindergarten and eighth grade are expected to be back in person by April 29, utilizing hybrid learning models.
However, this does not include students in grades 9–12 who are not in high needs special education programs or multilingual learning lab students.
Curtatone addressed this in his press release.
“We had imagined we would open up this building to our high school students,” Curtatone said. “But the pandemic has robbed us of that as it has robbed us of so much.”
Morgan expanded on this.
“While we recognize that it has been frustrating for everyone involved, particularly our students and families, we were committed to providing a rich remote learning experience for our students and to stay connected with them, supporting them in every aspect of their learning experience as we worked toward moving into our phased hybrid model,” Morgan said.
In the press release with Curtatone, Superintendent Mary Skipper (LA’89, AG’96) also acknowledged the difficulty of not being able to be in the new building and said that the district hopes to properly celebrate its opening when it is safer to do so.
“We look forward with great anticipation to properly celebrating the opening of this beautiful state-of-the-art facility in the company of our students, staff, and members of the community once it is safe to do so,” Skipper said. “In the meantime, we are committed to looking at ways to give Somerville High School students, especially the class of 2021, access to this wonderful new facility.”
The new building, for which planning began in 2012 and construction began in 2018, is six stories and 396,000 square feet, with “12 science labs, three art rooms, three music rooms, a multilevel media center, a fully renovated gymnasium, a collegiate-style lecture hall” and outdoor learning and dining areas, according to the press release.
Skipper praised the planning, designing and construction of the building, recognizing the eventual role that it will serve for high school students and the Somerville community.
“As you walk through the building, evidence of the thought and care that went into planning, designing, and building a teaching and learning facility that will serve generations of students for years to come, and one that will also serve as a gathering place for our community, are evident at every turn,” Skipper said.