The start of the school year is coming into focus, as local education officials have drawn up learning models for the School Committee and state to review.

As students and teachers anxiously await what kind of learning September will bring — classes at school, remote learning from home or a mix of both — the School Committee will weigh in this week.

Families are expected to get their first look at possible scenarios for the start of the academic year at Thursday night's School Committee meeting, Superintendent Margaret Marotta said.

Students and parents are also hoping to get an idea of when the school year will start — Sept. 2 as originally planned, or mid-September as is allowed by the state.

Marotta will brief the School Committee on the three learning models drawn up by Haverhill and required by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The models are: All learning done in school classrooms; students doing all learning remotely online from home; or a mix of in-school classes and remote learning.

Details of those three plans and how Haverhill would make them work are due to the state on Friday. They will be reviewed by state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and returned to Marotta with feedback before final tweaks are made. The learning plan Haverhill will adopt is scheduled to be released to the public by Aug. 10, Marotta said. 

Haverhill to choose?

Marotta said she is uncertain whether the state will assign a specific model to all school districts or if Haverhill will be allowed to choose the model it prefers.

Haverhill is scheduled to start the school year on Sept. 2. However, a new school calendar will be presented to the School Committee for review on Thursday night, Marotta said. This new schedule takes into account the state's 10-day allowance that permits districts to delay the start of the school year until Sept. 16 if they choose, using those extra days for professional development or other preparation. Typically, the Haverhill district's roughly 700 educators have just one day to prepare in their school buildings before students return to class, Marotta said.

"We definitely want to take more than one day at the beginning of the year to get the staff ready, for planning and professional development, but I don't know if we want to use all 10 days at once," the superintendent said. "I can see going back for six weeks, then taking a breather and saying 'What works, what can we do differently?' and potentially even saving a day or two just in case the unknown happens.

"It's not the time to squander a gift like this," she said of the 10 days allowed by the state.

Teachers: Preparation time needed

Anthony Parolisi, head of the Haverhill Education Association teachers union, said he hopes the district will start the school year by using the days allowed by the state, so teachers can collaborate on lesson plans for the benefit of students. Parolisi, who teaches at Consentino Middle School, said the union disagrees with the state's stance that all 10 days should be used for training purposes.

"The teachers need that time for the things they normally do at the beginning of the year, which includes stocking a classroom, if we can even go back into the buildings and they're certified safe," Parolisi said. "Those 10 days should be dedicated to having teachers plan their curriculum for what happens when resumption of learning begins."

Parolisi said the teachers union has not entered formal negotiations with school officials yet, but must do so when it comes to issues like wearing masks because a change in "working conditions" is involved. The union had to negotiate a similar agreement in March involving remote learning when students shifted to the online model.

Medical group advises city

Mayor James Fiorentini recently appointed a Medical Advisory Panel to advise him, Marotta and the city on various issues regarding COVID-19. Fiorentini said he will ask the panel to focus initially on the start of the school year, expanding virus testing in the city, and preparations in the event there is a second wave of the coronavirus.

The medical panel's work is advisory only — the panel has no regulatory authority. Two appointees, however, are also members of the city's Board of Health, which does have authority over public health matters. The committee includes Romie Mundy, Board of Health chairman; Alexander Matolcsy, Board of Health member; John Maddox, head school physician; Katie Vozeolas, head school nurse; Mary Connolly, public health nurse for the city; and Bomba Gerrett, chief physician executive at Pentucket Medical.

"As we proceed to the next level of opening, it is important that we have the best information possible, and that we act on solid data," Fiorentini said. "We will primarily rely upon the state for guidance, but this local panel can also assist us with strictly local issues."

School air quality reviewed 

In the meantime, Marotta said school officials have met with city building inspectors to assess the condition of school buildings, paying specific attention to heating and ventilation systems. 

"We're in the process of repairing all the windows in all the schools to make sure every classroom has good ventilation to the extent it is available," Marotta said. "We're having all of our HVAC systems looked at. We're trying to be aware and reasonable."

The superintendent said there are no state guidelines requiring schools to maintain certain ventilation procedures in order to open.

Parolisi said his union, along with other teacher unions across the Merrimack Valley, have petitioned state and local leaders to make air quality a priority if and when students and staff return to school buildings. 

Parolisi said the goal for the start of the school year "should be not to figure out how to make remote learning work, but to figure out how to get the students safe enough for remote learning to end when public health benchmarks are in place. We can't just sit on our hands and wait to go back into the same buildings we left. There must be a commitment from local and state officials to evaluate each building in the city and state before anyone goes back into them."

Fiorentini, who is chairman of the School Committee, has said safety is the city's top priority when it comes to reopening schools.

"During the lock-down, thousands of children didn't get a quality education,'' the mayor said of the school shutdown that began in mid-March due to COVID-19 and continued for the rest of the last school year. "We can't let that happen again. It's imperative that children go back to school, but it's also imperative it be done safely. Our focus is going to be on safety and we're going to make the safety of your children a priority."

Staff writer Mike LaBella contributed to this story.

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