Full return plans taking shape for public schools

Mar 8, 2021

This story was updated to reflect new guidance provided by the state’s commissioner of education on March 9.

Dartmouth’s youngest learners will fully be back in the classroom this time next month, according to a a new timeline from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

On March 9, DESE announced that elementary schools will be required to reopen for full in-person learning on April 5. Middle schools will be required to be open full time on April 28.

The timeline comes after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on March 5 voted to give Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley the power to decide when hybrid or remote models will no longer count towards required student learning hours. 

The state will announce in April when high schools will be required to fully reopen.

“We will obviously be discussing how to make this work or submit a waiver request,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford said. 

A week after announcing that Pre-K and Kindergarten students would return to the classroom full time later this month, Gifford said that things are “moving right along,” despite continuing issues with how to return middle and high schoolers. 

According to the superintendent, the big challenge is how older students can fully be in buildings while social distancing protocols remain.

Most of the issues, she said, come down to the larger number of students that are typically in the classroom. 

“We cannot fit all the kids in the classroom,” Gifford said at a March 8 School Committee meeting. “We just can’t.” 

Gifford noted that some strategies the district is looking into might include separating a class of 27 into two groups — with one located in another area such as the gymnasium. 

“Those students would be asked to attend the class in session virtually,” she said.

Gifford said that the cafeteria and auditorium could be used to create additional seating for classes, as students would be able to stream what was happening in the classroom on their computer. However, she noted, extra staff would need to monitor those spaces. 

“A hundred eighth grade students pretty much wouldn’t fit in classrooms, given the parameters that we have to abide by,” she said.

The middle school in particular would have to create a new schedule, Gifford said. 

“Sort of like a block schedule and shortening the day to account for all academics and teacher prep time as well,” she said. 

Dartmouth High would see similar problems, Gifford added, noting that contact tracing would  become more of an issue since students move from class to class. 

Officials are also looking into how to safely provide lunches while students maintain their physical distance from each other.

The superintendent noted that additional desks have been purchased for the returning students.

School officials said that desks would have to be placed just three feet apart to put the alternate cohorts of students back in the classroom together, despite Center for Disease Control guidelines calling for six feet of social distancing whenever possible.

The School Committee had previously expressed concern about the district's plans for transportation at a March 1 meeting after the release of new state guidance about transportation.

According to School Business Administrator Jim Kiely, transportation is “in very good shape.”

Under the state’s new transportation guidelines, Kiely said, two kids from different households will again be allowed to sit together on a bus seat.

“It’s challenging, [but] we’ll get it done,” Gifford said. “We continue to look at it — we continue to plan.”