The Everett School Committee voted unanimously on Jan. 19 to make the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines for teachers and staff central to their plan to return students to an in-person hybrid education model sometime in March.
The marathon meeting took nearly five hours to complete, and about 80 percent of it was devoted to the hybrid issues – and most of the concerns elicited form a large number of teachers in the first 90 minutes of public testimony seemed to be based on erroneous information.
The membership of the Everett Teachers Union (ETA) sent more than 400 e-mails to members of the Committee that day, Jan. 19, with concerns about what they perceived as an immediate return to school. Those concerns were heard, but the plan was far from immediate once rolled out by Supt. Priya Tahiliani.
The cornerstone of the new plan – which still does not have any dates attached to it but would in a best case scenario be some time in mid-March – lies with the City’s ability to be the first community to prioritize educators and get them both doses of the vaccine before students return to the classroom with them. Tahiliani said the driving force behind going forward while cases are still above the stated metric is the ability to get vaccine for educators.
“Our decision is based on two recent and major developments,” said Tahiliani. “One of these is a vaccine and the other is our collaboration with the City of Everett in choosing to prioritize our educators in the rollout of clinics. The availability of the vaccine is the biggest variable in us choosing to transition to hybrid from almost fully remote. It was not until Everett’s COVID-19 numbers died down that we began considering these changes.”
Mayor Carlo DeMaria – who attended the meeting for the first time as a voting member – said he had put in an order to the state for 950 doses of the vaccine for educators. By press time on Tuesday, the City was still waiting on a decision from Gov. Charlie Baker about whether or not the City will get the vaccine.
The plan would include four phases in order to return to a hybrid model – which would be voluntary for students and families, as they can still opt to remain fully remote through the end of the year if they wish. Teachers would be expected to be in the classroom teaching and not teaching remotely in the Everett hybrid education model.
The plan is as follows:
•Phase 1 would include a vaccination clinic on Feb. 6 at City Hall to vaccinate about 300 teachers and staff using about seven nurses.
•Phase 2 would be two days of Professional Development to go over strategies and best practices for teaching in a hybrid mode.
•Phase 3 would be about 28 days after Phase 1 and includes the second dose of the vaccine.
•Phase 4 includes the return of students to the classroom.
“There are no specific dates,” said Tahiliani. “The dates will be contingent on the ability of the City to get us the vaccine and the City is working as quickly as possible to get as many doses as possible, but there are some things like that which are out of our control…The vaccine is integral to this plan.”
The plan also includes students coming back staggered by group and grade level, with substantially separate special education students first, and going up by grade level.
ETA President Kim Auger said there are still some questions, but she considered the City prioritizing educators and staff as a “gift” and gave support to the plan.
“The vaccination plan is very, very exciting,” she said. “We are one of the first districts to be a part of something like that. That teachers are being given the vaccine as a priority…is probably the best gift they could receive. That’s really, really important to all of us to make sure we’re safe and in turn our students are safe.”
She said it was very important to the membership that teachers have both doses in their arms before kids attempt to return to the buildings for school sessions.
Every School Committee member was supportive, including Mayor DeMaria – who said it was a good and solid plan and the City is working hard to make it a reality.
“My purpose is to work with you all so our kids can close the achievement gap,” he said. “As the mayor working with the City Council I’d like to identify some funds to do summer enrichment programs and bring these programs in for kids who may have lost some time and need to get up to speed before the fall. This is a good plan and I feel comfortable with it.”
School Committeewoman Dana Murray said it is up to the schools to meet the needs of the community and not to tell them what’s best for children.
“At the end of the day, it’s not our job to tell our parents whether or not they should have their children return to school,” she said. “That’s the job of the parents to decide. When we as educators, a school system, City Hall or the School Committee infringe on those things…we should have a very good reason for it. Once you take away the teachers vaccination reason, there aren’t a lot of very good reasons to not go back to a hybrid situation as long as you give parents the option to choose to keep children remote at home.”
A second part of the programming once students do return to the classroom is an aggressive testing program. That program would include pool testing and rapid testing used in combination. The federal government has agreed to pay for six weeks of pool testing, and then the district would have to pay after that. The Rapid Testing is available from the state and federal government at no cost for districts that have kids in the classroom. The way it would work is that everyone is tested with a swab for the pool test, and groups of up to 25 would be tested together. If that comes out positive, the group in the pool would all have to have a rapid test. If the pool is negative, then there is no further action.
Together, with vaccinations, Tahiliani said she believes they have built a framework for a safe return to school.
That message seems to be in line with a majority of the parents in the district, according to a survey conducted in multiple languages. Interestingly, those that performed the survey were about 50-50 on returning or not.
Meanwhile, those speaking a different language were more eager to return students to the classroom, particularly Portuguese speakers – who had 72 percent say they wanted to send their kids to a hybrid model.
For English speakers in the survey, 599 said ‘yes’ to a return, and 584 said ‘no’ to the return. Among the English Learners (EL) families, 433 wanted to return and 217 did not.
Overall 56 percent said they would send kids back, and 46 percent said they would not.
“The number of ‘no’ responses does point to an apprehension from a significant amount of families,” she said. “It also supports our decision to allow remote throughout the school year. Conversely, we are excited that we have so many families that are interested to returning to in-person teaching and learning.”