Proposal to Return Haverhill Students to Classrooms Next Month Waits on State Guidance

Haverhill School Superintendent Margaret Marotta displays disinfecting wipes at a meeting of the School Committee. (WHAV News file photograph.)

The question of when students can safely return to the classroom continues to be a hot topic with no clear answers from the Haverhill School Committee.

While Mayor James J. Fiorentini recently asked for plans to return students to the classroom next month, Committee members remain divided, in no small part because the state has yet to issue clear guidelines on plans to make it happen. School Superintendent Margaret Marotta said while the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education agrees with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on policies such as mask wearing and sanitization practices, other issues, such as adequate social distancing and the need for vaccinations, are not as clear.

“The state is continuing to recommend a minimum of three feet of physical distancing between students, which is different from what we have now, which is six feet between desks. Commissioner (Jeffrey) Riley of the Department of Education will need to complete his plan and bring it to the Board of Education sometime this March,” she said.

Marotta said another problem is lunch, where students would not be wearing masks.

“One of the issues with having students back is lunch. Our cafeterias are not built to accommodate our students at six feet apart and social distanced,” she explained.

She said one option may be to end the school day before lunch. She also pointed out that once the weather improves, eating outside would help mitigate the problem.

The superintendent also shared the results of a questionnaire recently sent out to school staff, parents and students regarding their level of comfort with a return to the classroom. Among the more than 3,500 responses, 43% said students must remain six feet apart while 34% said they are okay with any amount of social distancing. They were also asked if they still want to participate in remote learning if schools opened fully. Sixty-seven percent said they would return to classes while 33% said they would not.

For his part, Fiorentini, who has been a staunch advocate of getting students back in the classroom as soon as possible, cited recent reports suggesting keeping children out of the classroom is more dangerous than having them go back.

“It’s nice to have six feet, but you don’t have to and, although it would be nice to have teachers vaccinated, it is not critical to be able to get kids back in school,” he said.

The superintendent told the Committee that while the administration must wait on the state before any action may be taken, they continue to plan for the eventual reopening of the classrooms.

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