FOUR NEW faculty members were welcomed to the high school during teacher orientation on Monday. They are, from left, Kelsey Coughlin, guidance counselor; Jenna Grossman, guidance counselor long-term substitute; Lindsay Gervino, school adjustment counselor; and Vincent Papageorgiou, special education long-term substitute. (Maureen Doherty Photo)
By MAUREEN DOHERTY
NORTH READING — When North Reading’s students return to school next Wednesday they will experience a very different first day of school than they had last September — when they were divided into four cohorts and basically saw half their classmates in-person for half the week and the other half only on a computer screen all week long through mid-March.
But it will also be a very different experience from last June, when mask mandates began to be lifted over Memorial Day weekend and the summer months were enjoyed mostly mask-free.
As required by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) late last month and implemented by Jeff Riley, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), all students ages 5 and older, as well as all staff and visitors, will be required to wear masks when indoors on school grounds and when traveling on school buses, at least through October 1, when the metrics of the Delta variant and the state’s vaccination rate and positivity rate will be re-evaluated.
Looking on the bright side of the progress that has been made, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Patrick Daly stated in a notification to the school community on these latest developments that “the great news is that our students will all be back in school for five days per week and participating in all of the academic, athletic, and extra-curricular activities as they would in a typical year.”
Masks will not be required when outdoors and when eating. Those students or staff who cannot wear masks due to “medical or behavioral reasons” will be exempt from the mask requirement.
School start times change
This fall, the later start times for middle and high school students will be fully implemented, with all students in grades 6 through 12 starting school at 8:30 a.m. and ending their school day at 3 p.m. On early release days they will be dismissed at noon.
At the elementary level for grades 1-5, all three schools — Batchelder, Hood and Little — will start their school day at 8 a.m. and end their school day at 2:15 p.m. Gone are the days of the “late” and “early” elementary schools. Early release day dismissal will be 11:30 a.m.
Kindergarten half day sessions at all three schools will run from 8 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Pre-K half day at the Hood runs from 8:15 to 11:15 a.m. or 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and full day pre-K at the Little runs from 8:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.
Pre-K and kindergarten orientation is Sept. 8 and 9 with the first day of classes beginning Friday, Sept. 10.
Navigating pandemic remains “challenging”
“I am extremely grateful for our community and our educators and administrators. The past 18 months have been challenging, but we have generally stayed unified. Many parents have their own thoughts on the best approach forward, but they have been respectful in their comments and have abided by the policies in place,” School Committee Chair Scott Buckley told the Transcript on Tuesday.
“Local boards and leaders have worked together to navigate the pandemic and many have supported the School District, including the Select Board, Board of Health and Finance Committee. Most importantly, our educators and administrators have worked collaboratively to find the best way through the challenging times. In addition to finding common ground on working conditions, we have even been able to successfully negotiate labor contracts during the pandemic,” Buckley added.
Speaking as just one member on a board of five in response to some of the controversies brought up at recent public meetings before the School Committee and the Board of Health with regard to the issue of wearing masks in school, Buckley believes for its part the School Committee is “trying very hard not to insert our personal opinions and instead follow third party guidance and work with all stakeholders. We want to keep students in school and keep the town as together as we can throughout the pandemic.”
“Personally, I think the School Committee should be very careful not to extend our authority into new areas. We never issued a mask mandate last year; we followed DESE guidance. We have never voted on what vaccinations are required to attend school; we follow state guidance. I worry if we start into a new area there could be unintended consequences and more things we would need to address,” he said.
Buckley further stated, “I believe that public health decisions which are based on a statewide rise in numbers should be addressed by DESE and DPH as they are the state bodies tasked with making those decisions. If things are stable on the state level but locally we have an outbreak, I think the local Board of Health should issue guidance based on local health data. We have a very educated School Committee but none of us are public health or medical professionals. We tried hard last year not to make decisions before all the information was available and we have been able to talk with all stakeholders. We said repeatedly in our last meeting that our decision on August 16 was an August 16 decision.”
Buckley added, “We have followed DESE’s guidance for the past 18 months and the majority of us, regardless of our personal views on masks or vaccinations, voted to follow the same authority. Now, with low vaccination rates and increased numbers in the state, the DESE has issued a mandate and so their guidance has changed based on numbers.”