PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School officials have made some preliminary plans for back to school this fall even though much uncertainty still surrounds the reopening of school buildings.
Superintendent Jason McCandless gave the School Committee an update Wednesday and compared known state reopening guidelines to what the Pittsfield Public Schools has tentatively planned or is expecting.
"Nothing that you see here is written in stone, it is all subject to change," he said. "We share this with you as information but certainly with the caveat that this is very very likely subject to change."
Although planning to fully reopen, McCandless said the state Department Elementary and Secondary Education is requiring school districts to also develop plans for a partial reopening and continued remote learning.
The district is preparing to launch 800 mobile hotspots to provide families with proper internet access as well as the deployment of another 2,400 Chromebooks. This will ensure that they are prepared for all learning scenarios, he said.
McCandless first went over what going to school may look like. He said the state asks that parents sign off that their children are symptom free and have not been around a symptomatic person.
The superintendent said they do not plan to do this.
"We will be trusting that a kid is symptom free and has not been in proximity to a symptomatic person," he said. "We will not be asking for parent sign offs and we don't anticipate taking temperatures. This will be an honor system situation."
The state also recommends, for transportation, that there be three empty seats behind the bus driver. Students will sit alone with one empty seat in between each student.
McCandless said this would turn a 70-person bus into a 12-person bus though he anticipates that this could change in the fall.
"We believe that the space behind the driver may not be there in the fall and we believe that siblings will be able to sit together," he said. "We anticipate that perhaps there may not be a full seat in between students but they could be staggered."
That change could double the number of students on a bus to 20 to 24 students.
McCandless said families will be encouraged to avoid bus transportation as much as possible. All students will be required to wear a mask and the windows will be left open. McCandless said this will be extended to the bus driver.
Once arriving at school, students entering will be staggered and will move directly to their first class or homeroom space. Hand sanitizers will be available upon entry.
Temperatures will not be taken upon entering the building and all those entering the building will be required to wear masks.
McCandless reiterated that they will rely on the honor system and trust that students who have symptoms or who have been around those with symptoms will be kept home.
Breakfast will be eaten in the classroom and students will not be allowed to congregate.
McCandless said visitors or presenters will likely not be allowed into school buildings during the pandemic.
And the use of lockers is not anticipated but officials may take another look at locker use in the winter when students will have more to carry.
Once the school day begins, students will need to be masked. Those with medical exceptions may be able to forgo this with medical documentation and the use of face shields is being explored in these circumstances.
This also applies to staff.
McCandless said DESE does not require schools to supply masks but 250,000 have been ordered.
Areas identified for "mask breaks" will be created and will optimally be outside to provide room for social distancing.
A COVID-19 potential waiting space may be implemented for students who appear to have symptoms and need to be picked up.
"They come in and they are not feeling well or they are expressing symptoms. They will be asked to wait in a set aside space," he said. "It will be well ventilated and optimally near the nurses office."
There will be hand sanitizer in every classroom and there will be regular hand washing opportunities throughout the day.
McCandless said children will stay within the same cohort of students throughout the entire day.
"You might be in a building with 300 to 400 people but there are ways to limit the individual student exposure to 20 or so students," he said.
He said they also may ask teachers to move from classroom to classroom instead of students.
Nonessential furniture will be removed for maximum student movement in the classrooms. Larger areas such as the cafeteria, music rooms, and libraries will be used as classroom space.
Lunch will be served in staggered shifts allowing students to have 3 to 6 feet distance so they can remove their masks to eat.
There will be no open campus lunch at Pittsfield High School until restrictions are lifted.
He said they are still awaiting guidance on what to do with physical education, band, chorus, orchestra, and some other specialized courses that may involve saliva, heavy breathing, or closer interaction.
Leaving the buildings, students will be asked to sanitize their hands prior to exit and bus entry or whatever means they use to get home. Students will again be staggered upon leaving.
Students will not be allowed to gather after school.
"We cannot let them hang out after school," the superintendent said. "We know that is something positive and important but until this is over, it is problematic."
He said the status of after-school programming is still unknown. This is also the case for athletics.
McCandless said there are still many unknowns: what will recess look like, what to do with water fountains, and can students bring in their own hand sanitizer, among others.
More procedural questions: how can families opt out of sending their kids to the physical school buildings, how can students opt out of wearing a mask, and what happens if there is an outbreak in one of the schools.
"I have been asked that question about 100 times in the last couple of weeks and we do not have guidance from that state of what the magic number is," he said. "How many staff test positive and we close school? How many students test positive and we close school? We don't know the answer to that right now."
He said they also have to ask at what point will an outbreak in the community prompt school closures and what happens if there is not enough staff available to safely operate one of the schools.
The next stage of planning will be informed by family and staff surveys to see how comfortable people are with returning to school.
Administration and staff are still "stress testing" classroom spaces to make sure they can accommodate social distancing, forming cleaning and sanitizing plans, and working with bargaining units to negotiate a memorandum of understanding.
"Clearly this work is complex," he said. "It is made even more complex given that we have about a month to work on it."