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Two Nashoba Valley regional school districts prepare to return students to classroom

Governor wants elementary schools back to normal by April, local districts respond

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TOWNSEND – The Baker/Polito administration wants elementary school students back in class five days a week by April 1. While that date may seem too close for comfort, at least two school districts in the Nashoba Valley appear ready to meet the challenge.

Brad Morgan, superintendent for the North Middlesex Regional School District, said on Tuesday that the district’s School Committee voted this week to bring students in grades kindergarten through 12 back to five-day-a-week in-person learning by April 5.

Morgan noted that this is pending the actions of Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, who is working with Gov. Charlie Baker and other top state education officials to establish mandates for other districts to reopen schools five days a week by April.

Baker unveiled the proposal on Feb. 23 after officials noted that the mental state of students continue to deteriorate and the number of coronavirus cases have been going down lately.

While the timeline appears to be aggressive, Morgan thinks his district is capable of safely bring kids back indoors.

“It appears that there is no additional risk, provided that the safety mitigations are still being followed,” he said. “Based on what we’ve been told, we’ve only had one in-school transmission and the mask-wearing mandate is being followed excellently by students and staff. Our teachers association realizes the importance of having kids in the classroom. Of course there’s trepidation, but they’ve been incredible to work with.”

Laura Chesson, superintendent of the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, said she participated in a conference call with other neighboring superintendents and Riley on Feb. 24, with many people “heartened” by the idea of reopening schools.

“Change is always challenging, but I think it’ll be less so than if schools stay with half days,” Chesson said. “We’ve implemented pool COVID testing as of two weeks ago, we’ve had no positive tests so far and there’s been no evidence of a community spread within the schools. We’ve had extraordinarily low rates compared to other towns.”

Both North Middlesex and Groton-Dunstable have been preparing to go back to five days. At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, North Middlesex was following a hybrid method of learning with certain groups of students alternating between two half-days of in-person learning and entire days of remote learning during the week. Morgan noted that, as of March 1, those groups now alternate between two full-days of in-person learning and entire days of remote learning.

Chesson said that since Sept. 16 last year, 75 percent of students in grades kindergarten through eight have been in school buildings for in-person learning four days a week. Fridays have been totally remote days for those students.

“Our teachers much-prefer teaching in-person rather than remote,” Chesson added.

The latest talking point in the coronavirus pandemic is the distribution of numerous vaccines and in the case of schools, when teachers can get a shot. Morgan believes that kids returning to school full-time would be more “palatable” if educators were vaccinated and is even comprising a resolution for Baker’s office to move teachers up the line for vaccines.

By Wednesday, top Legislative leaders and teacher union officials were pushing Baker to get teacher vaccinated.

“I personally think that Baker has missed the mark in getting educators vaccinated,” Morgan added. “It’s problematic that educators, grocery store workers and other people still going to work are not vaccinated. The country’s vaccine rollout has been surprisingly slow.”

Chesson said that Groton-Dunstable’s school nurses were vaccinated at the same time as first responders. She noted that 40 members of the district’s 275 professional staff are currently eligible for vaccinations and when she asked the entirety of the staff if they’d be willing to get vaccinated, 95 percent said they’d get a shot.

“By the time we’d have elementary school students back full-time, one-third of our staff would be vaccinated after following the state’s phases,” she added. “Our teachers are up for it.”

Mary Malone, superintendent in Ayer/Shirley, did not respond to requests for comment.