Plan Made: School Committee in Agreement on Fully Remote Learning

The Chelsea Public Schools switched gears from its initial school re-opening plan this week, and presented a fully remote online plan to start the school year in September – a plan the School Committee adopted enthusiastically with an 8-0 vote.

Supt. Almi Abeyta told the Committee in a Special Meeting on Tuesday night that the plan that had been previously presented – which included the option of the fully remote Online Learning Academy (OLA) or a hybrid, in-person and remote learning option – was now going to be changed. That was because the COVID-19 numbers for the city have inched up, with her particularly watching the percent positive metric.

“Why are we suggesting this new approach?” she asked. “On Aug. 5 our date from the (state) was released. The City at that time had 4.93 percent positive rate. This is an increase in what we had in previous weeks…The 5 percent rate was a metric we use internally because we did look at that metric. At that point, when we looked at that positive rate, we decided it was too high to return to school. I said it over and over, if we get to 5 percent I will not open up schools…Therefore, our new recommendation is to return in the fall fully remote and return in-person when conditions allow.”

That decision was promulgated on Friday after the numbers came out, but the announcement on Tuesday by Gov. Charlie Baker that Chelsea was a “high-risk” community – one of only four statewide – only bolstered that decision.

School would start on Sept. 16 in the all-remote format, but there would be a pre-opening professional development period for teachers to learn more about remote instruction.

The fully remote section would last through roughly Oct. 4, and there would be a full, in-person option for eligible students such as those in special education separate programs. There would also be Centers for Online Learning open that provide internet and would potentially have a monitor. On Oct. 5, there could be a potential “easing in” period would with more in-person learning opportunities. There wouldn’t be a fully hybrid, in-person for all grades until potentially Nov. 2 and any hybrid, in-person options would start at the lower grades and work up to the higher grades. Through it all, the OLA would be available and cohesive for parents that do not want their students to return at all. All of the potential dates for in-person school, however, could change and would be dictated by the rates of the virus in Chelsea.

A great concern, Abeyta said, with the remote learning is students in Special Education, English Learners and those with Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

Another challenge is to improve the remote learning program from what it was during the emergency learning situation in the spring.

“The challenge for us is we have to improve remote learning and we know this,” she said. “What we heard and what we know is we need more structure and organization and accountability for families, students and teachers.”

The decision was bolstered by scores of teachers, and Chelsea Teacher’s Union officers, who spoke live about the issue and who submitted written testimony. All of the teachers and Union officers supported a fully remote option for the sake of safety.

Many of them referred to what has been a successful summer, online learning program where many of the hiccups in remote learning from the spring were worked out quite well.

One student, George W. McKinnon, wrote in on behalf of the student council in one of the middle schools. He and other students advocated for a return to school in person, noting that parents needed to go to work and couldn’t leave kids unsupervised. Meanwhile, he also said many sports camps and summer programs in Chelsea and beyond have operated very safely this summer. If they can, he reasoned, why can’t the schools.

Parent Michelle Nadeau said it is important that kids get to go back in person.

“The isolation from being at school and having peer interactions has been nothing short of devastating,” she said.

School Committeewoman Rosemarie Carlisle said her vote in favor of remote was for the children’s safety, but she indicated that she wanted teachers to work out the issues and concerns they have before there is an in-person model deployed.

That was echoed by members Jeannette Velez and Henry Wilson.

“School is our community and we need to bring that community back to our community as quickly as possible,” said Wilson.

Member Marisol Santiago, however, said she would push to keep remote learning in place as long as possible – and she said that was coming from someone who has a child with an IEP. She said safety has to be paramount.

“Schools are equipped to rush kids back to school,” she said. “I’m going to be an advocate for remote learning as long as possible.”

Chair Kelly Garcia commented that she is a teacher as well, and going back to the classroom in person scares her personally.

There was little hesitancy in the vote, and it was a quick 8-0 vote for a Committee that has been divided this year on some key issues. There was a great amount of pressure from teachers and parents on both sides of the matter.

Abeyta clarified that families will still be asked to choose whether they want a full remote plan all year, or if they are up for going hybrid when the time comes. Having that decision will allow the schedules for remote and in-person to mesh seamlessly later when it is safe for students to return.

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