Mayor James Fiorentini wants Haverhill students to return to classrooms full time by April 1.
His proposal would end the hybrid learning model the school district has been using for most students since the start of the school year. The hybrid model, designed to guard against the spread of COVID-19, has students in classrooms two days per week and learning remotely online from home the other three days.
All members of the School Committee — except Toni Sapienza-Donais, a long time Haverhill teacher and principal — voted in favor of asking Superintendent Margaret Marotta to come up with a plan that meets Fiorentini's objective.
Sapienza-Donais expressed concerns with the mayor's April 1 target date. She said various issues must be considered first, including when teachers can be vaccinated against the virus.
"I think this is way too early to make a decision," she said.
Fiorentini said it is "way past time" to get children back to school full time, noting that the COVID-19 positivity rate in Haverhill is decreasing weekly. The positivity rate is the percentage of people in the community in a two-week period who are tested and found to be infected, compared to the total number of people tested during that period.
Fiorentini also said the school district's pool testing program that began recently is increasing safety for students and teachers. That program has groups of students and teachers who spend time together at school swab their noses and place the swabs in a container that is then quickly tested for COVID-19. If the virus is detected, each person participating is then tested separately.
"You can always vote against the plan (for students to fully return to schools) but I'd like to see what that plan looks like," the mayor said to other School Committee members during their Feb. 11 meeting. He is chairman of the committee.
Fiorentini said the Centers for Disease Control indicated it is safe to have children back in school before everyone is vaccinated — as long as measures to prevent spread of the virus are observed.
"We are doing incredible damage to our children, particularly to our poor and minority children whose parents cannot afford to take time off'' work to be at home with the children on remote learning days, the mayor said.
Sapienza-Donais pointed out that City Hall is still not fully open to the public, to which Fiorentini responded he plans to have the building completely open "well before April 1."
School Committeewoman Gail Sullivan said it makes sense to have a plan for returning students to school full time that the committee can consider.
"I don't understand why we would object to having a plan," she said. "If the plan doesn't work or it's not good or it's not reasonable, then we don't approve the plan."
School Committeeman Scott Wood said society is starting to open up overall, and called for a plan for the committee to review.
"Our job is to give students the best education possible and that's by having them in a classroom," he said.
Anthony Parolisi, president of the Haverhill Education Association, the teachers union, said after the School Committee meeting that teachers were blindsided by the proposal and by the committee's vote. He said it said undermines months of efforts to rebuild a relationship between the union and the school administration that must be based on trust and communication.
"This motion and vote once again threatens to disrupt all of that progress," he said. "It was at the last meeting of the School Committee when it decided to stop making arbitrary decisions and begin using a metric created by the district's Joint Stakeholders Coronavirus Response Team. The union and district created this group to make recommendations on changes in the learning model."
Parolisi said the mayor had an opportunity to attend the response team's meeting, held an hour before the start of the Feb. 11 School Committee meeting, and share his ideas there.
"He decided to spring it on every educator who has been working tirelessly to make the current learning model succeed," Parolisi said of Fiorentini's proposal which instead came during the School Committee meeting. "It's political theater and it's blatant pandering to a vocal minority.
"Before we can do anything to reduce the six feet (distance between students at school), we need vaccine available to all teachers who want it, community spread must continue going down and we need to make sure every building has air quality standards necessary to bring more people in," Parolisi said.
Asking the superintendent to create a plan would take her and her team's attention away from securing vaccination distribution for teachers and from managing day-to-day duties, Parolisi said.
"For her to have to do this now, when we have so much work to do, just doesn't make sense," he said. "We declared no confidence in the committee two months ago as they were making decisions arbitrarily, and here they are doing the same thing."