MEDWAY — Superintendent Armand Pires wishes to share with the community updates regarding the district’s efforts to plan for a fuller return to in-person learning.
Even in the wake of increasing numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in the community and region, recent updates to the initial Medway Public Schools reopening plan include progress made and future hopeful plans for a fuller return to school for all students during the coming months.
“We are proud to have implemented a reopening plan that mitigated substantial risk in September, and our schools have been able to remain open for in-person learning experiences despite positive COVID-19 cases within our schools and the greater community,” Superintendent Pires said. “While we know that the virus may affect our plans moving forward, we have continued to identify and mitigate barriers, and diligently work toward a fuller return for all students.”
The district initially began the year allowing all students in Grades PK-2 to attend school in person four days per week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday with a day of remote learning on Wednesday). Grade 3-12 students participated in a hybrid model of learning, attending school in person either on Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday with a day of remote learning for all students on Wednesday.
Students identified with unique learning needs or who require specialized instructional approaches have been able to attend school in person four days each week. The district has also supported approximately 10% of the student population in a fully remote option, Virtual School, that is predominantly instructed by Medway educators.
Last month, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) updated its guidance regarding learning models to state that all districts should prioritize in-person learning if there is not evidence of in-school transmission of COVID-19. The guidance also stated that a hybrid learning model should only be used for those communities with the highest risk level of COVID-19 according to state data, or if a district cannot meet the health and safety requirements to have all students in school.
It remains the district’s goal to have as many students as possible back in classrooms for in-person learning, and several grades in Medway have already or will soon return to school fully in person. However, in-person plans come with a number of barriers the district is working to address in order to ensure that safety remains the highest priority.
Recent Changes and Future Plans
Integrated Preschool-Grade 3
By mid-November, the district was able to model a third grade 4.5 day return after the successes experienced in the PK-2 model. The district now looks forward to a full five day per week return of PK-3 students when Wednesday afternoons will shift to in person learning beginning on Dec. 16.
With grades 4 and 5 then remaining as the only elementary-aged learners still participating in the hybrid learning model, the district has mapped out plans to bring back all grade 4 and 5 students for five days of in-person learning per week beginning in early January 2021.
The pathway to supporting a full return for grade 6-12 students is much more complex and requires the district to consider and work to mitigate three primary barriers.
Barrier 1: Physical Distancing Requirements
In the Initial Fall Reopening Guidance provided by DESE, it was recommended that school districts should aim for 6 feet of physical distancing, where feasible, and ensure at least 3 feet in their reopening plans.
After reviewing the recommendations and feedback from families and staff, Medway Public Schools adopted a 6-foot minimum physical distance in its reopening plans, which ensured there would not be close contacts within the schools, with the exception of transportation. Ensuring 6 feet of physical distance in schools prevented a full return of all students and led to the development of the hybrid model for students in grades 3-12.
The creation of additional classrooms in K-5 and the hiring of additional teachers for some grades will allow the district to maintain this distance, however grades 6-12 are unable to return fully at this level of distancing.
Barrier 2: Transportation
Transportation guidelines outlined by DESE, resulted in decreased transportation capacity of buses. The guidance, on average, reduced the typical 77 student riders to about 25 students on the 13 buses that Medway Public Schools has contracted with Holmes Transportation. This allowed the district to transport only 325 students compared to 1,001 students in typical times. Additionally, in a recent survey of parents and families, nearly 66% indicated that they would need transportation for their child.
The district has reviewed survey results to determine families’ needs and how those needs can be met given capacity limitations. If it is determined that transportation needs exceed current capacity, the district has identified two possible options.
- The district could create “double runs” for some bus routes, which consists of a bus traveling its route to pick up 25 students and dropping them off at school before going back to pick up an additional 25 students for the same school.
- The district could also contract with Holmes Transportation for additional buses, in which case the district would incur additional expenses.
Barrier 3: Knowledge of the Virus in the Schools: Regular COVID-19 Testing
Regular testing for students and staff can help to support a fuller return. However, a challenge with testing is the length of time between a PCR test being administered and the return of results. Because an individual who is symptomatic and was tested cannot return to school/work until they receive a negative test result, this timeline of results has unnecessarily resulted in lost school days for students and lost work days for staff.
Additionally, the public health procedures do not activate until a positive PCR test is obtained. The delay of test results could also inadvertently result in a potentially positive individual transmitting the virus to others. The district has identified three options to help alleviate these challenges and support a fuller return to school.
One support is rapid testing. Medway has been selected to receive a number of fast acting antigen tests to be administered by school nurses. These tests, produced by Abbott Labs BinaxNow are being provided at no cost and yield results within 15 minutes. The district could use these tests to support decision-making for students or staff who are symptomatic; however these tests are not definitive and individuals would also need a PCR test.
A second action taken by Medway Public Schools is regular testing for staff. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, the district began facilitating regular, weekly pool testing for over 90% of the district’s faculty and staff. The district hopes to minimize the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by offering this regular testing to identify asymptomatic COVID-19 positive individuals and manage new cases within the school community.
Lastly, the district is currently exploring regular testing options for middle and high school students. This testing would begin in January and would mirror the weekly testing taking place for staff. Since a fuller return of grade 6-12 students cannot be accomplished with the current 6-foot physical distancing parameters, the data received from testing is the only potential catalyst for possibly exploring a shift in these parameters.
An overview of the district’s current progress and future planning can be found in the School Reopening Update and Next Steps Presentation.