The buzz is back in school buildings this week as nearly 2,000 students in grades K-5 returned to full-time, in-person school at elementary schools across the city – with another 871 choosing to remain remote at home.
It was the first major step of the Everett Public School district’s re-opening plan, as a smaller group special education students were welcomed back last week. Monday’s return marked the first time large amounts of students had been in school buildings in Everett for more than a year – with the schools shutting down on March 13, 2020, never to re-open in person until this week.
“As of today, 70 percent of our students (in grades K-5) opted to return to school five days a week while 30 percent chose to stay home in our remote model,” said Supt. Priya Tahiliani at Monday’s School Committee meeting.
There were a total of 1,990 students that chose in-person schooling.
“It was exciting and energizing to be in buildings and feel the bustle and energy which we haven’t seen in such a long time,” she continued. “We lost an indescribable amount during the pandemic, but I feel like we’re finally starting to fill these voids and re-capture routines and feel the buzz and excitement of a building full of staff as students – as these buildings should be.”
The numbers of students returning, and those also opting to participate in the pool testing program, has gone up considerably since the plan was first rolled out in early March. A survey on March 15 had 66 percent going, and 34 percent staying.
“We did see an uptick in the last few weeks of families saying ‘yes’ to in-person learning,” she said. “We have not found any great anomalies. The numbers are not skewed in any grade level and the percentages don’t vary tremendously from school to school.
“We are also seeing an equal percentage of students in all the different groups,” she said, noting that at first it was families speaking other languages that were most enthusiastic about a full return. “It goes back to the fact this is an individual decision for each family and there are a lot of considerations in play when families make these decisions. It will be interesting to see as we move forward how many families enroll for in-person or how many choose to return to remote learning. For now, we were pretty surprised that the trends we saw earlier had evened out.”
Families who wish to move back to remote can do so at any time, but families that wish to go from remote to in-person will have to fill out a form to opt into such a learning model. Their students will be permitted to return to school on April 26.
There is some concern from remote families that, given the large number of students returning to school, the education might not be as vigorous online as it is in the classroom.
And with that question, it seems there was also a new lexicon formed as Supt. Tahiliani referred to remote students as “Zoomies” and in-person students as “Roomies.”
She said classrooms so far are set up different according to teacher preference. Some of the Zoomies are facing the Roomies and the teacher, while other classrooms had Roomies and Zoomies out of sight.
“The one thing I saw was that both groups were engaged,” Tahiliani said, but encouraged parents with concerns to bring them up to the district quickly so they can be adjusted – as it is a totally new way for teachers to be practicing their craft.
One thing that will be expected with in-person learning is somewhat frequent setbacks on COVID testing. She said they would be doing pool testing on about 82 percent of the K-5 students, and they are grouped in cohorts. Already one cohort has had to be quarantined and go back to remote learning because of a positive within the group. That, she said, will be the nature of the game in living with COVID.
“We do expect no matter how diligent we are, we will have positive cases in our schools and that could mean a temporary return to remote learning,” she said. “In fact, this has occurred and we are at least reassured by being able to provide in-person learning where we can and also confident of the robust process we’ve put in place for remote learning.”
If all goes well over the next few weeks, EPS plans to return Pre-K and grades 6-8 to school by April 26. The choice forms for those grade levels will be out on April 7 for parents to consider. In the meantime, the district said it has plans forming for high school students to return, but are awaiting guidance from the state on high school return. She said they needed to gauge interest with the older students for a return and would be sending out an interest form soon.