Time to Talk About School; Supt. Abeyta ready for a conversation on in-person school

Only a short month ago, most were resigned to the fact that Chelsea Public School (CPS) students would remain learning from home the rest of the year.

What a difference seven weeks makes.

Now, as the state and federal government have sent strong messages about getting kids back into schools this spring – and teachers have jumped to a higher priority for vaccination this month, Supt. Almi Abeyta said she’s ready to have a conversation about returning.

“It’s time,” she said this week. “When you look at our data, our percent positive rates have gone down. I have always said we would watch the science and data to see when it was right to have a conversation about bringing kids back and the data is telling us it’s time for that conversation.”

Chelsea, however, is like no other district around it.

In Everett, Boston and Revere, most surveys of parents have shown that a majority of families are ready at this moment to send their children back to school. In Everett, that district is looking to get elementary school kids back in school five days a week by April, a move that 65 percent of parents supported. Boston began an in-person hybrid model on Monday for K-3, and more than 50 percent of families there sent their children.

There isn’t that same level of support for going back in Chelsea.

According to a Remote School Satisfaction Survey given in January, some 2,276 families responded and 81 percent said they were at least somewhat satisfied with remote learning in CPS. Another 67 percent said that remote learning was much better than they expected, and more than 50 percent said they weren’t all that concerned about their child’s academic progress slipping backward. Astoundingly, 49 percent surveyed also said they weren’t at all concerned about their child’s mental health during remote learning – something that is very different than what other parents in nearby communities are reporting.

However, Abeyta points out that 62 percent surveyed also said they like that they have options, and she said under any return, families are able to choose an all-remote option – called the Chelsea Online Academy – until the end of the year without penalty.

“I think that survey says a lot in how we as a Chelsea community are unique and how the virus impacted us,” she said. “It reflects in the data. I’m flipping the switch and saying it’s time to go to the table and revisit this. Last fall, we were 50-50 on who wanted to come and who wanted to stay. We imagine now it’s about the same.”

Already, a letter went out to families last week informing them that the district intended to begin a conversation with parents, staff, students and the School Committee about a return.

City Manager Tom Ambrosino said he believed kids needed to be back in school by April, and said his position is made easier by the recent announcement that teachers will be vaccinated starting next week.

“One, I think kids need to be back in school, and two I think that teachers also need to be vaccinated,” he said. “The teachers aren’t a large group; statewide it might be 80,000 people…That eliminates the union issues. They get that one shot, it’s done and they’re protected…For those parents who want to send kids to school, we need that option back. I expect that in Chelsea we’ll have some kids in the classroom sometime in April.”

Abeyta said they have the advantage of learning from other districts about what to do and what not to do. Likewise, Chelsea has qualified for pilot testing program from the state that will allow them to vigorously and regularly test students and staff for COVID-19 in every building. They also have ample PPE and the ventilation has checked out in the buildings – which in Chelsea are mostly new.

“The discussion will start with the Chelsea Teachers Union,” said Abeyta. “The discussion will also happen at the School Committee. It’s time to start having these discussions again and go from there.”

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