With one week left to go until the end of the school year, students are already thinking about summer break, but local school officials don't have that luxury.
They are instead bracing for guidance from the state about the next academic year — what must be done before fall to make sure schools are prepared to teach students, while keeping them safe from COVID-19.
Superintendent Margaret Marotta said she expects to receive additional information June 16 from Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, about the direction districts including Haverhill are to take for the 2020-2021 school year. According to Marotta, "90% of guidance to districts will be dictated" by the state, with very little wiggle room.
While many unknowns remain, some things are becoming clear, Marotta said. Class sizes will be cut in half, with classrooms accommodating between 13 and 15 people at one time, including teachers. Everyone age 6 and older who is medically able to wear a mask will be required to do so, and the district is asking families to add masks to their back-to-school shopping lists.
Marotta and Katie Vozeolas, director of health and nursing for Haverhill schools, suggest families use the summer break to teach children about coronavirus-related hygiene techniques so when they return to school in the fall, things like that will not be foreign to them.
“A lot of what we’re going to ask of children is going to be extremely difficult: Don’t share, don’t touch your friends, wear your mask all day, respond to me (the teacher) when you can’t see my face,” Vozeolas said during a recent community forum on education.
According to a memo issued to superintendents by Riley on June 5, school districts were advised to order a three-month supply of hand sanitizer and other personal protective equipment, and not to plan too far ahead.
Marotta said Haverhill school officials are trying to accommodate families with multiple children so if a mix of in-classroom and remote learning from home is used, children from a particular family can attend classes on the same day, allowing their parents the freedom to work.
In Riley's memo, he alluded to capping classrooms at 10 students, but Marotta said — and state officials later confirmed — that Riley's projection was based on health data at that time, and not a requirement.
Riley's correspondence asks school nurses to develop "isolation and discharge protocols" for students who become ill during the school day. According to state education officials, a specific room must be available for students with COVID-19 symptoms, and that room must be separate from the nurse's office.
As of Tuesday's press time for the Gazette, a total of 1,123 residents had tested positive for coronavirus since mid-March. Fifty-six have died. A week earlier, the city had 1,085 cases and 55 deaths. The week before that, the numbers were 1,048 and 52.
While Marotta and city education officials await next week's state guidance for the coming school year, they continue to firm up plans for summer school.
The superintendent said that program continues to remain in flux, though an in-person summer school would likely cater to only special education students with the most needs and those with significant disabilities. A remote summer school program where students would learn online from home is also being discussed, Marotta said.
Officials also hope to run an in-school program this summer for students who struggle with reading. The program would serve as a test run for this fall, giving educators a way to assess issues that could arise in managing classrooms while dealing with COVID-19 restrictions.
Transportation remains an issue for the next school year. As of Tuesday afternoon's press time for the Gazette, the School Committee had yet to reach a contract agreement with bus transportation provider John McCarthy, owner of the NRT company which is in its ninth year of an 11-year contract with the city. NRT took over the contract from Coppola Bus company when McCarthy bought that company last year. Coppola bused Haverhill public school students for decades before the sale.
Should an agreement not be reached by Wednesday, June 10, McCarthy has said he will not bus Haverhill public school students in the fall. At a School Committee meeting last week, Mayor James Fiorentini said the city is asking Solicitor William Cox to take over negotiations with McCarthy and, if necessary, pursue legal action.