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Groton-Dunstable Schools Plan Phased Opening This Fall

District Will Incur $1.4 Million In Additional Costs To Meet Covid-19 Related Safety Protocols
by Robert Stewart
The Groton-Dunstable Regional School District plans to welcome students back to the classroom this September when schools reopen after being closed for more than three months in the spring following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the state last March. TheSchoolCommitteeisexpected to act upon the recommendations of the Superintendent’s plan that would include a phased opening of schools on Sep. 1, in-person learning in the classroom with a teacher, safety precautions and protocols as outlined by the state, extra classroom space and additional staff.
     The School Committee will consider those plans at their July 29 meeting. If that plan is approved, it will be sent to the state Department of Education for review and assurances that COVID-19 safety issues are properly addressed.
     The Superintendent’s recommendations to reopen schools with students and teachers in the classroom comes not only with an abundance of caution related to COVID-19 protocols but also with significant additional costs for the school district. Superintendent Laura Chesson said she is estimating that the additional costs will total $1.4 million.
     Those costs would cover things like personal protective equipment (PPE), additional teaching staff, storage of excess educational equipment that can’t be used with COVID-19 protocols, tents for outside activities including “mask breaks” for students and an analysis to improve air ventilation in the buildings.
     Chesson said it appears the District can cover the additional costs through special state aid to schools and through the federal CARES Act that is being distributed to cities and towns around the country to assist them in meeting their respective responses to the COVID-19 situation. Chesson said the school district expects to receive approximately $500,000 from the state and the town of Groton will use $650,000 from the CARES Act to help the school district meet the additional expenses. Chesson indicated that the School Committee plans to meet with the Dunstable Select Board this week to determine what, if any, CARES Act funds might be available from that town to help the school district.
     In-Person Learning Option Chesson said school administrators and the School Committee have been meeting weekly to work on different plans for the upcoming school year. Last month, the Governor recommended that every school district in the state prepare three different plans on how they would open schools in September: One would include all students returning to classrooms with their teachers; a second would include a hybrid model that blends a combinationofin-personlearning and remote, online learning; and a third would include a plan whereby all learning takes place remotely and online.
     Chesson said at the forefront of those choices the state is leaning towards all students returning to the classroom for in-person learning based on the recommendations and findings from the Board of Pediatric Physicians. Chesson also said her recommendation to the School Committee will be the plan that has students returning to the classroom for in-person learning. She acknowledged that schools and classrooms will look different for the upcoming school year but the importance of socialization andthegive-and-takerelationship between teachers and students will be present.
     Chesson said her recommendation is based not only on state preferences but also from the feedback the school district has received from parents and staff. In a survey of parents, Chesson noted that 10 percent of parents said they would not send their children back to school regardless of what happens in regards to the pandemic. Fourteen percent indicated they would be unlikely to send their children back to school. The remaining parents (approximately 76 percent) said they are either likely or very likely to send their children back to school. Chesson said the survey for teachers and staff was just sent out and the results of that survey wouldn’t be known until next week.
     Chesson said the recommended plan of in-person learning would follow a slow and phased approach for opening schools. Groton-Dunstable Schools are expected to open Aug. 31 and under the in-person learning plan, a certain number of students will report to school and the remaining students will begin school with remote learning. Several days later, on Sep. 10, more students will report to school and by Sep. 14 all students will be in their classrooms for in- person learning.
Shortened School Day; Bare Classrooms
     In addition to phasing in the arrival of students, Chesson said the plan will recommend a shortened day for all students in high school, middle school and elementary school. The school day will be shortened by approximately one hour with the high school day ending around noontime, the middle school day ending around 1 p.m. and the elementary school day ending around 2 p.m. The shortened school days is recommended to last until the end of September.
     The classroom itself will appear bare as social distancing protocols will reduce the number of students per classroom and the number of desks. Chesson said that a normal classroom of 21 to 25 students would be reduced to approximately 13 students to accommodate the recommended six-foot distancing requirements. Because of social distancing, the schools will need extra classroom space and additional teachers. Because students, especially in elementary and middle school, will (in general) not be changing classes for subjects like art and music, those spaces will be used for extra classroom space. In addition, cafeteria space and gym space would also be used for classroom space since indoor gym and cafeteria lunches will no longer be offered.
     Students will be required to wear facemasks and be encouraged to use hand sanitizer frequently. Teachers will have plastic barriers in place so students can talk to teachers in private if there is a need. Chesson said the in-person learning plan will provide tent space outside so students can periodically go outside and remove their masks to balance the time that masks are in use. Transportation issues are still being discussed, but Chesson believes that problem will be easy to solve as approximately 40 percent of parents indicated they would drive their children to school.
     In summing up the choices that have to be made, Chesson said, “There is no good choice...There is no choice without some sort of risk associated with each of the choices...There is essentially a trade-off between benefits and risk.”
     The School Committee is expected to vote on the recommendation at their meeting on July 29 and the School District has until Aug. 10 to submit their final plan and the School Committee’s preference to the Department of Education – just 18 days before the scheduled start of school.
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