Schools may use blend of classroom and remote learning in fall

Scott O'Connell | Telegram & Gazette

School officials expect to get guidance from the state this month on how to handle next school year, which could involve using a hybrid virtual/in-person approach.

Local superintendents said they received an update from the state’s elementary and secondary education department last week on the next steps in the state’s coronavirus response, which has had schools closed since mid-March.

If schools are able to reopen this fall, “it could be a blended model,” said Worcester Superintendent Maureen Binienda, although she added she didn’t know how that might work. “They didn’t get into exactly what that is yet.”

“A lot of the whispers in the wind have involved some kind of hybrid platform,” involving both in-person instruction and virtual education, said Spencer East-Brookfield Superintendent Paul Haughey. “But I don’t put any stock in it. I want to see what the guidelines are.”

Since closing school buildings more than two months ago, districts across the state have been delivering instruction to students virtually in their homes.

Binienda said that model will continue with Worcester’s summer school this year, which will begin June 17 and run until July 8. A program for special education students will run from July 6 to Aug. 6.

“I’m hoping we have more demand (than usual this year),” she said, given the disruption in education this spring. “But I don’t know if some families just want a break from remote learning.”

The district as of last week was still looking for staffing for the summer school program, and had close to full funding for it, thanks to budget savings this spring, according to Binienda. The school department was still looking to cover a $166,000 gap to run the program, she said.

Binienda said the state’s latest timeline for fall reopening planning should be sufficient for the district to prepare.

“If they tell us in the middle of June, we’ll be ready by August,” she said.

Haughey said Spencer-East Brookfield’s preparedness would “depend on what’s in the guidelines.” But he had confidence in the state’s handling of the situation.

“There’s a lot of hard work happening at the state level so we do this properly,” he said.

Already, he said, schools have been told to stock up on protective equipment like masks for a potential reopening. Schools may also have to be ready to conduct regular deep cleanings of buildings to prevent contamination, Haughey said.

In addition to the state guidance, school officials are awaiting the final state budget numbers, which could differ from Gov. Charlie Baker’s January, pre-coronavirus spending plan that many districts have based their fiscal 2021 budgets on.

“We need the numbers to know how to staff,” said Haughey. “That’s the anxiety that’s keeping people up at night right now.”

However the state decides to proceed, Haughey said, it will almost certainly not be business as usual for local schools this fall, given the current and expected effects of the pandemic.

“What we were, we won’t be again. It’s going to be a whole new world,” he said. “We will get there; we will reopen eventually. That’s the good news.”