WESTFIELD – Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski informed the School Committee on March 15 that the district administrative team had met and decided not to apply for a waiver, but to accept the state’s plan to return students back to school full time in person.
The plan begins with kindergarten through grade 5 returning to school buildings five days a week on April 5. Grades 6 to 8 students will return on April 28, and grades 9 to 12 on May 3. May 28 is the last day of school for seniors, and June 16 is the last day of school.
“We decided we wouldn’t qualify,” Czaporowski said about their decision not to seek a waiver. He said his main argument against the plan was reopening school without vaccinations for teachers. He said while a significant number of staff are still struggling to get appointments, a good number of them are now getting vaccinated.
“There will be obstacles, and we’re asking for people’s patience,” he said.
The guidelines districts have received to date from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) include three feet between students in K-12 classrooms, and six feet between students at lunchtime. Amended transportation guidelines include no space limits on buses, but masks will be required to be worn and windows will be open.
A survey has been sent to families, asking those whose students are in hybrid learning if they want to come back to fully in person learning or to go fully remote until the end of the year, and whether they will use bus transportation. Czaporowski said it would help the district if no changes were made to initial decisions, especially bus route changes.
Challenges to implementing the plan include space limitations in some schools and classrooms that may not be able to fit all students, requiring satellite locations. Larger classes in Westfield High School may move to the library or other alternative spaces within the school. Czaporowski said he has spoken to the Boys & Girls Club about off site learning spaces for some students in Abner Gibbs, which has smaller classrooms.
Renting tents, tables and chairs will enable students to eat outside, eliminating the need to add lunches, he said, adding that the Boys & Girls Club may have some tents available for the schools.
Czaporowski said the district still has to complete negotiations with the Westfield Education Association, and more buildin- based substitutes need to be hired. He also asked the School Committee to approve an early release day on April 1, to allow teachers to set up and plan classrooms.
“Teachers are going from one model to another model over a long weekend which doesn’t give them much time to set up classrooms,” Czaporowski said.
During the discussion School Committee member Bo Sullivan asked if the three feet between desks means three feet with a mask that only comes off during a break or going outside. Czaporowski said yes, and that masks are worn at desks but can be removed at lunch, which is why the required distance is six feet.
School Committee member Diane Mayhew said the schools will not be doing temperature checks as students enter schools, and that the screening for COVID symptoms will be the responsibility of parents.
“Yes, please do not send a sick child to school,” Czaporowski said.
School Committee member Cindy Sullivan said she watched the state Board of Education meeting at which the decision on dates was made. “It was a struggle for them to come to this decision; the vote was not unanimous, and there was a great deal of discussion,” she said, adding that she appreciates the creativity by the district to have the kids outside as much as possible.
Cindy Sullivan also asked if there would be funding to rent the tents, tables and chairs, and whether they would be put up and taken down every day. “I’m hoping we can leave them out,” she said.
Czaporowski said there are school reopening funds available, and the district will use a state vendor for tables and chairs. “I hope we don’t have a very rainy, cool April. We’re going to do the best we can with this. Come September, we’re opening like normal,” he said.
Bo Sullivan asked if the district would still have the authority to close the schools down
Czaporowski said they could close a class, grade level or even a whole school if necessary. He said families also have the ability to keep students home the rest of the year, which is allowed by the state.
What will not be allowed to continue is the hybrid model of students who are both remote learning and in school. “The commissioner… wants the kids in every day. We need a commitment. There are only three months left in school,” Czaporowski said.
“I think we’re in as good shape as we can be,” saidSchool Committee member Ramon Diaz Jr., before the unanimous vote to approve the plan.
“While there will be some significant challenges along the way, we are looking forward to having our students return to in person learning,” Czaporowski said after the meeting.