For schools, full reopening looks ‘impossible,’ says superintendent

Jul 6, 2020

Dartmouth’s Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford said at a July 6 School Committee meeting that a full return to in-person learning under current state guidelines this fall looks more or less “impossible” after officials weighed their options for the next school year.

Gifford told the committee at the meeting that administrators are coming up with three different plans for next year: a full return to in-person learning with safety precautions in place, a hybrid between remote and in-person learning, and a full remote learning model with “more robust” systems for grading and assessments.

The state’s education commissioner has required all school districts to submit a plan for each scenario as well as a plan for special education students in August.

Gifford noted that a survey of parents and staff was sent out earlier that day, asking if people would feel comfortable sending students to school or putting them on a bus.

Plans will likely develop around survey results and initial state guidelines released on June 25. 

“As we craft our plans they’re subject to change depending on medical advice that comes down the pike,” Gifford noted.

The state education commissioner established initial guidance for reopening that requires three feet of space around desks and mandates that the cafeteria not be used for food service. Screening and temperature checks would not be required under current rules. 

With the number of requirements, Gifford noted, reopening the schools is “pretty much looking impossible right now.”

“They’re calling it a pressure test,” she added.

School Business Administrator Jim Kiely has visited each school to measure rooms and map out the feasibility of three feet of distancing between desks, Gifford said — and most classrooms will fit around 12-14 students with the new regulations.

“A three-foot zone is not going to accommodate all of our students even when you look at non-traditional spaces and try to repurpose those,” noted Kiely, adding that he looked at using cafeterias and other large rooms for additional space. 

“We can certainly get creative and try to maximise the space...But it’s clear that we won’t fit all the students,” he added. “So that is something that we need to accept and plan for.”

School Committee Chair Chris Oliver stated that as a parent and a School Committee member, “Until I see something coming from the CDC, I am not comfortable with putting those desks three feet apart.”

“I 100 percent share Mr. Oliver’s concerns about safety,” said committee member Dr. Shannon Jenkins. “But I don’t want us to forget that not having students in school is going to be devastating for so many kids.”

Transportation will be another sticky issue, with rumors that the state may require one child every other bus seat — meaning each bus could only fit 12 kids. 

“We can’t get all our students there,” Kiely said. “I don’t think we can expand the fleet — we wouldn’t get the buses even if we wanted them.”

Staggered start times for schools would create a “whole other host of challenges” like staffing issues and coordinating with families, he added. Other possibilities include doing double bus runs, although he said that the transportation contract would likely have to be renegotiated.

“We are expecting more guidance to come soon,” noted Kiely.

Dartmouth High School Athletics Director Andrew Crisafulli discussed possibilities for athletics in the fall, including the “ideal” traditional fall start dates, a delayed start for all or some sports, staggered schedules, or simply cancelling the entire fall season.

Flipping seasons to switch fall to spring sports was not something he was looking at, he said, as spring athletes could end up seeing their season cancelled twice — and on the other side, fall athletes could injure themselves by starting the 2021 season after just seven weeks away.

Crisafulli noted that the highest-risk sports are “contact” sports like football and soccer in the fall and ice hockey and basketball in the winter.

Transport to and from games, he added, is going to be “the number one challenge.” 

“Some type of fall athletic season and experience is something that we’re shooting for,” Crisafulli said. “My fingers are crossed and the kids and community need it, so we’re gonna do everything in our power to make that happen.”

At the same meeting the School Commission also voted on a resolution to send to the state legislature a notice in support of full funding for state-mandated Covid-19 expenses like PPE for all school districts.