Education officials say Haverhill public school students will likely start the academic year on a hybrid schedule — a mix of learning in classrooms and remotely from home.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, the hybrid schedule is backed by Superintendent Margaret Marotta, despite Mayor James Fiorentini's firm stance that students should return to school in person full time as soon as possible. He said he wants all children in classrooms by Nov. 1. 

According to a preliminary plan, these are the possible learning scenarios for when students start the school year in September:

— Students attending classes at schools four days per week, with remote online learning on Wednesdays only.

— A hybrid model that splits students into groups and sends children to school on certain days depending on their academic needs and health requirements.

— A model called a Remote Learning Academy, which has four days per week of remote learning for students and one day in classrooms at school.

At last week's School Committee meeting, Marotta presented a first look at those three plans which Haverhill is submitting to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley will review the plans and offer feedback before the School Committee chooses a plan on Aug. 10.

Marotta said she is unsure whether the school district will be assigned a learning model or if Haverhill will be allowed to choose the model it prefers. 

A public comment session for families to give their opinions on the models is planned for Thursday night of this week, Marotta said. 

While the superintendent said she prefers to start the school year with the hybrid model, a mix of in-school and remote learning, she acknowledged there is "no right answer."

"There are a lot of benefits to returning to in-person learning, but we don't want to do that until we're ready and safe," she said.

Students start school mid-September

Haverhill students were originally scheduled to start the school year on Sept. 2, but Marotta said the tentative first day of school has changed to Sept. 16. That is because new guidelines from the state allow for 10 days at the start of the school year for teacher training and professional development, plus preparation work. 

Marotta said the hybrid approach preferred by the school district is one that splits students into groups. Most students would be placed in groups called "cohorts A and B'' and attend school in person either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, and learn remotely from home on the internet on the other days. The same teacher would direct both the in-person and remote lessons to provide consistency. 

Marotta said another "cohort,'' or group C, would consist of students who require special attention. That group would be made up of children with disabilities in substantially separate learning environments, along with Level 1 and Level 2 English Language learners who struggle with the language. That "cohort'' or group would attend school four days per week and learn remotely from home on Wednesdays.

"Cohort D'' is a group of students who would attend school in person on Wednesdays and participate in what the district calls a Remote Learning Academy the other four days of the week. Marotta said students in that academy are the 10 to 20% who either require or choose to learn remotely from home.

In a June survey of 1,013 parents, 29% said the remote learning that happened toward the end of the last academic year when schools closed due to COVID-19 went "better than" or "much better than" expected for their children. Still, Marotta acknowledged, remote learning was difficult for both teachers and students during that period.

"Many of our students struggled," she said. "Remote learning won't be 'crisis learning' like last year, (now) it will be graded and have structure. It will have much more consistency across grade to grade and school to school."

The grading Marotta referred to as part of the new remote learning program is in contrast to last semester's remote learning, which essentially called for a pass/fail review of students' work by teachers.

Tutoring, technology time allowed

According to the preliminary school reopening plan, on Wednesdays students would be able to enter school buildings for in-person tutoring and remote learning technology troubleshooting, Marotta said. Those activities would happen while the buildings are being deep-cleaned, but with a limited number of people coming and going, the spread of COVID-19 would be limited.

As part of the remote learning component to the school reopening plan, the district has partnered with groups like the Greater Haverhill Boys & Girls Club and the YMCA to allow students to spend time there doing remote schoolwork. That way, Marotta said, families whose parents who cannot be home don't have to worry about child care, meal planning or even spotty internet service or a lack of service. 

Marotta said the hybrid model was chosen as the preferred approach after the district consulted with other superintendents across the region.

While the School Committee has yet to vote on the plans, most members voiced opinions at last week's meeting. No voice was louder than that of Fiorentini, who is chairman of the committee.

"Our kids deserve a first-class, in-person education, just as safe as we can," the mayor said. "I believe we can open our schools with a phased-in approach."

Fiorentini said he would like to have students back in school buildings by Nov. 1, and re-evaluate that deadline on Oct. 15. 

He argued that a careful, data-driven reopening was successful in restarting the economy statewide and in Haverhill, so there's no reason to think it wouldn't work for schools. 

"There was a truly heroic effort by our staff with remote learning (when schools closed in March due to COVID-19), and many kids benefited from remote learning, but the stark truth is remote learning left many children, particularly many special-needs and low-income children, behind," Fiorentini said.

"Remote learning left behind the children most in need of our assistance,'' he said. "It widened the gaps we are trying to narrow between the middle-class children and the poor children. Remote learning meant that at a time when we claim no child is left behind, hundreds of children were left behind. 

"If we do not reopen our schools we are doing an incredible disservice to our children," the mayor said.

Public can review plans

The full Haverhill public schools reopening draft guidelines are expected to be posted to the school website at haverhill-ps.org.

The district has named Whittier Middle School teacher Jennifer Rubera as director of the new Remote Learning Academy, Marotta said.

Other items discussed at last week's School Committee meeting included how the district, using Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, will adopt approximately four feet of social distancing between students.

Normally 6,000 children ride a bus to school daily and, with DESE guidance, Haverhill buses are expected to run at 33% capacity, carrying 2,000 children per day, Marotta said. Haverhill is contracted with the NRT Bus company, though owner John McCarthy has said he will not transport the city's children if Haverhill does not pay about $600,000 he said is owed to him — money his company did not receive after schools closed in the spring due to the virus.

How to serve meals at schools remains a big unknown, Marotta said. The district is looking at the possibility of putting up tents so students can eat outside. Some school cafeterias may be used, while some students may eat in their classrooms, she said.

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