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School officials face many unknowns in planning for new year.

The clock is ticking toward a new school year, and Harvard school leaders and staff are scrambling to solve the problems of opening during a pandemic. Planning groups—subcommittees of a 25-member district task force—are meeting nearly every day to work out both the broad plans and the tricky details of how to reopen schools safely and how to teach effectively under the challenging conditions.

Reopening plans were the focus of both a July 13 School Committee meeting and a July 14 evening information session for parents—meetings that, of course, took place on Zoom. The latter presentation drew more than 250 online attendees.

At both meetings, Superintendent Linda Dwight explained that every Massachusetts school district is required to turn in a reopening plan to the state by July 31. And that plan must cover three contingencies—a full reopening with kids in classrooms, remote learning, and a combination of the two. Schools must still plan for 180 days of instruction. Students from second grade on will be expected to wear face masks. And every school must offer a remote-learning option for families that decide not to send their children back to the classroom.

But, while the general outlines of the state’s requirements are clear, other aspects are far from settled. Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said the state will decide how all schools reopen, but many districts are calling for local control to fit local circumstances. And, as of July 15, the state had not yet issued a template for the opening plans or any guidance on issues such as student transportation or what to do if COVID-19 cases occur at a school after it is open.

Planning for a full return to school—and for alternatives

Dwight told the School Committee that the district task force is working first on a plan for a full return to school and then will develop the other two options. She said she hopes to have a draft of the plans to send out to families by July 27, with online forums for feedback from families a day or two later—one for Hildreth Elementary School and the other for the Bromfield School.

When someone pointed out that would be a busy week, with Bromfield’s graduation scheduled for July 31, Dwight responded, “There aren’t any weeks that aren’t busy right now.” Dwight said she expects to have more solid plans, as well as more information from the state, in early August.

The district task force has created several subcommittees to deal with specific issues such as teaching and learning; safety and cleaning; space and furniture; schedule and staffing; and transportation. On safety issues, for example, Patrick Harrigan, the school facilities director, reported in the parents’ meeting that he is working on the HVAC systems to maximize hourly air exchange in classrooms. He said he has plexiglass on order for dividers where needed, as well as extra-large stocks of cleaning supplies.

At Bromfield, where students normally change rooms up to 10 times a day, Principal Scott Hoffman said a scheduling subcommittee is looking for ways to reduce the number of classroom changes and minimize hall traffic. When students do need to change rooms, one-way staircases and divided halls can make for less contact.

Serving lunch is especially challenging, Dwight said, because students will need to remove their face masks. So Bromfield will need to schedule more lunch periods, so that fewer students at a time are in the cafeteria. Using outdoor spaces is another possible option, as long as weather permits, for lunch and also for some classes.

Keeping students the recommended distance apart will require new room arrangements, especially at the elementary school, where students often sit together at small tables. To get the additional desks needed, the School Building Committee has put in an early order for the new desks it had planned to purchase in December. Those desks would be put to use at once in the current building, then moved to the new building in May 2021.

Back to a once-traditional start date

The calendar for the school year is still in flux. Dwight told School Committee members she is seeking a delayed start, with Sept. 8—the day after Labor Day—as the first day of school. Dwight said she had two reasons for moving back the starting date. One is simply to allow more time for planning. But another is to avoid some of the hot, late-August weather, which would make wearing face masks even more uncomfortable in classrooms without air conditioning.

The schools would have to add six days somewhere else in the year to make up for the days lost to the later start. Dwight suggested taking three days away from the April vacation and adding three days to the end of the school year next June. But she emphasized that she is still seeking feedback on these proposals, and the calendar is not yet final.

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