Pre-K, Kindergarten students to start back in school full time on March 22

Mar 2, 2021

Dartmouth’s elementary school students will be coming back to school full time, with the youngest starting first on March 22.

The School Committee approved the tentative schedule with staggered starts for different grades at a March 1 meeting.

Pre-K and Kindergarten students are set to come back full time on March 22, followed by grades 1, 3, and 5 on April 5 and grades 2 and 4 on April 12.

Administrators are not looking at bringing middle or high schoolers back for full in-person learning at this time, noted Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford.

“We don’t see it as very feasible,” she said.

In order to put twice as many kids back in the classroom, officials said desks would have to be placed just three feet apart, despite Center for Disease Control guidelines calling for six feet of social distancing whenever possible.

Public Health Director Chris Michaud told committee members that this would increase the complexity of contact tracing, as more people will be considered close contacts for every positive case.

Officials said that a recent shift towards flexible seating and more collaborative learning environments means that there aren’t enough individual desks in the district.

Desks will be moved from other schools and classrooms, and many more will have to be purchased, according to Dr. Gifford and School Business Administrator Jim Kiely.

“I don’t see any way to modify the existing equipment and accomplish all that we’re trying to accomplish,” Kiely noted, adding that at the same time, the desks will have no use post-pandemic. 

Students in full remote learning will stay with that model, Dr. Gifford said.

It is unclear if those in the hybrid model who are uncomfortable with a full return will be able to transfer to the remote model.

To add to the complexity, “Unfortunately MCAS is still in the mix,” noted Dr. Gifford. “We’re trying to alleviate scheduling problems.”

Officials are also still discussing details on how transportation and lunches will be provided safely.

“Lunch is going to be very challenging,” Kiely said, noting that cafeterias are likely “not a viable option.” 

Kids may instead eat in shifts in their classrooms or elsewhere. “You just have to get creative,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state has relaxed social distancing guidelines for buses as part of a push from Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to get kids back in school full time.

“It does concern me when you put that many people within an enclosed vessel,” noted Michaud. “We’ve seen so much transmission in cars.”

With April vacation coming up — school vacations are a “jackpot” for communicable disease, Michaud said — and low testing across the general population, “I don’t think that we're out of the woods with this at all.”

“My family is extremely, extremely careful around this virus. And it struck us,” said committee chair Chris Oliver. “Myself, my wife, and my daughter all came down with Covid. This is nothing to joke around with. It’s scary.”

School Committee members asked questions and discussed the plans for nearly three hours before voting unanimously in favor of the March 22 start.

“All of us want our kids back,” said committee member Kathleen Amaral.