Back to ‘Normal’ Everett Schools Change Course in Calling for In-person School by April

The Everett Public Schools (EPS) has tossed out the idea of hybrid in-person education and is now proposing to the Everett Teachers Union (ETA) a plan that would bring back students in grades K-5 in-person five days a week in April for what would be the first “normal” classroom experience since last March.

That said, any family that chooses to remain remote would be able to choose that option and keep their students at home. Also, any such plan would need full approval of the ETA and the School Committee.

The plan came as a huge surprise for many as Supt. Priya Tahiliani outlined it for the School Committee on Monday night, though there was no vote attached to the plan. The outline was an update only, but there is no longer a hybrid plan being proposed and the new plan is what is currently being negotiated behind closed doors with the ETA.

“We feel it would be most prudent to move directly into the full, in-person instruction for K-5 students,” said Tahiliani, surprising many.

“Our ultimate goal was always to reopen schools,” she continued. “We’ve patiently waited for circumstances to ease and now that they have I believe we owe it to our students to act quickly on the state’s mandate…We are reaching the point where I believe a lack of movement on in-person teaching and learning does a disservice to our families and our profession. I do not believe we should be turning out backs on the tenets of our re-opening plan, or the mission of our school system. I also do not think we should be turning our back on the informed guidance of DESE and the CDC…I intensely feel it’s time to move forward.”

The plan was stoked by a new set of proposed guidelines from Education Commissioner Jim Riley which were supported by Gov. Charlie Baker. Those plans called for the Board to allow the state to require school districts to return to five day a week, in-person learning for grades K-5 by April. EPS and the ETA were just starting to negotiate for a hybrid learning model when that announcement came down, also with the indication from the state that teacher vaccinations would not be a precursor for such a return. In addition, part of that plan seems to indicate that if a district stayed within a remote or hybrid model overall, the student work would not be counted and likely students would have to repeat the grade level.

That is when Tahiliani said the district shifted its direction, and began to look at an aggressive return to in-person learning five days a week in April instead of trying to move to a hybrid model in mid-March.

The new rollout would be very fast with only four days, Monday to Thursday, of a phased in return of the students. Teachers would be expected, however, to report to their schools for training and professional development on March 8 – which is next week. Students would be spaced apart by at least three feet rather than the previously suggested six feet. Grades 6-12 would remain remote for that period, and Tahiliani said they are waiting on guidance coming from the state on how the upper grades would be brought back to in-person schooling.

In that model, the e-Learning Centers would be closed down around mid-March to prepare for the return to buildings.

Teachers would be teaching in class, and Tahiliani said there is no truth to the rumors that students would simply be coming to school and learning remotely on computers. Tahiliani also said that while waivers can be applied for, she doesn’t believe it’s the right thing to do in Everett.

“I think we see a need to push forward the plan to bring elementary students back by April,” she said.

She also added that bypassing hybrid would be an easier transition – as students would either be in school five days a week or at home five days a week. It would eliminate a shaky middle ground that some parents and teachers have said, according to Tahiliani, would wreak havoc on work schedules.

The teachers or the ETA did not have a statement on the matter as it is in negotiations, but last week ETA President Kim Auger said a cornerstone of their plan is to get teachers vaccinated before returning in any fashion.

That said, teachers watching the meeting and commenting on the plan were intensely against it, and there were also more than 200 e-mails sent by teachers in the district to the School Committee members, City Councilors, the mayor and Supt. Tahiliani.

Not all of the School Committee is on board either, and Member Allan Panarese said – after working on the front lines in a hospital through COVID-19, he wants teachers to be vaccinated first.

“Unfortunately I’m cautious and don’t agree with the governor,” he said. “I think our educators deserve better than they go. If there’s extra vaccine, let’s give it to teachers…You can understand why teachers are scared…Many of these students live with five or six family members and they all work. Think about how many people they come into contact with? It’s a lot and they’re bringing that with them to school…I’m still on the fence. I’ve been through a year of hell and I’m not going to hide it. It’s not pretty.”

School Committeeman Tom Abruzzese said he was blindsided by the new plan. While he had been gung-ho to get students back in the classroom a few short months ago, he said he’s now shifted a little and would like to be more cautious.

“I was full speed ahead, but the fact is I know you have to respect everyone’s feelings on this,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a tough thing, but to others it’s a tough call, as they may take care of elderly parents or have medical issues. The rush here caught me off guard. There’s a lot that goes into this. Can Gov. Baker and Commissioner Riley guarantee no one will die because of this? I feel like there’s a gun to our head and they say all the sudden that if we don’t go back to school our kids will go all summer after being locked up all year.”

“It’s been one year,” replied Tahiliani. “Every week our district is falling behind the districts that aren’t remote.”

Mayor Carlo DeMaria indicated he was for returning, saying it was about getting the economy going and getting people back to work. He also said, as the father of a student in EPS, that the kids need to be back in school. At the same time, he said he is optimistic that the state still might allow Everett to move forward with a vaccine program for teachers.

School Committeewoman Dana Murray said she sees both sides, being a teacher and a parent. She said she wants a vaccine as a teacher, but also wants to see kids be able to normalize and start to heal back in school.

“I do feel our teachers have done well with remote, but remote isn’t for everyone,” she said. “Nobody wants sick teachers. I also don’t want to look at my students and tell them the time they put in online doesn’t count because we stayed remote April, May and June. Now they have to spend the entire summer in a classroom after a year of lockdown.”

There was no easy answer it seemed, but Tahiliani also stressed the importance of trusting the science, which has been a hallmark of the discussion up to the point of having to return.

She said the district’s Advisory Group on health has signed off on their plan, and there is ample evidence in the state and national that school is not a spreading even when coupled with numerous protections being implemented in EPS. “If we’re going based on data, we have not seen a spread in schools,” she said. “Before we were skeptical of that when it was said, but now that is what all the data shows…There are schools in other states that have returned K-12 five days a week…I feel like now we’re starting to see greater consensus develop, even in the media, about returning to school.”

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