HAVERHILL — With the clock ticking until the school year begins, local educators are anxious — just like families — to hear the state's guidance on how learning will happen amid COVID-19.

Over the next two weeks, Haverhill officials will put the finishing touches on three start-of-school plans for the state to consider: A remote model in which students would do all learning electronically from home; a model that sends students back to schools for all learning; and a hybrid of the two. 

Superintendent Margaret Marotta said Haverhill must submit those plans to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by July 31. Marotta is not yet sure if the state will assign a specific model to all school districts, or if Haverhill will be able to choose the model it prefers.

Marotta said that on Aug. 10, families can expect an update on how the school year will begin. Haverhill's year starts Sept. 2.

"We know families are frustrated and we appreciate their patience. We really can't plan in-depth right now," Marotta said. "It's not that we're not planning or trying. We're thinking of every possible plan."

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has so far said that if school buildings do open, all staff and students in grades two and above must wear masks and stay at least 3 feet apart during the school day. Temperature checks of students and staff will not be required, but all schools must have a COVID-19 isolation space separate from the nurse's office.

This week, the state released a list of protocols about COVID-19 scenarios in schools, on school buses and in community settings. According to that guidance, if a student or staff member tests positive for the coronavirus, people who have close contact to that person should also be tested. A close contact is someone who was within 6 feet of the infected person for at least 10 to 15 minutes — in a classroom, on the bus or at an extracurricular activity, for example.

According to state guidance, those possible close contacts should not return to school until they have either been tested or chosen to self-quarantine for 14 days. If someone tests positive, they must self-isolate for a minimum of 10 days until they have had three days without a fever, the state said. Someone who tests negative and has no symptoms can return to school wearing a mask.

Safety is paramount regardless of how the new school year takes shape, officials said.

"During the lock-down, thousands of children didn't get a quality education,'' Mayor James Fiorentini said of the school shutdown that began in mid-March and continued for the rest of the school year. "We can't let that happen again. It's imperative that children go back to school, but it's also imperative it be done safely. Our focus is going to be on safety and we're going to make the safety of your children a priority."

According to Marotta, school officials have spent the last several weeks arranging classrooms in various configurations to adhere to state guidelines. While the state has dropped the minimum social-distance requirement from 6 feet to 3 feet, Marotta said most classrooms will allow for 5 feet between students at all times and 6 when children are unmasked.

Plans for nursing are also being outlined with the help of Katie Vozeolas, director of health and nursing services for the School Department, and school physician Dr. John Maddox. Marotta said school officials are also discussing how school lunches will work — whether students will eat in classrooms or cafeterias.

"In some of the schools, the cafeterias aren't big enough for kids to be 6 feet apart, so we'd have to have many, many lunches (lunch periods), or students would have to eat in their classrooms,'' Marotta said. "We're still working through that.''

Transportation remains another unknown. The city is still under contract with the NRT Bus company, but NRT owner John McCarthy has said he will not transport students if he does not receive $613,405 of what he called an "outstanding balance" due. That is money the city refused to pay NRT when schools were closed earlier this year due to COVID-19 and no student transportation was needed.

The busing issue, coupled with social-distancing restrictions, has forced school officials to think outside the box. Marotta is asking families who are able to drive or walk their children to school to consider doing so. She said another option is starting something called a "walking school bus" in neighborhoods.

"Kids could meet at a local spot and, with a school official there, walk with a group of kids to school to avoid a traffic backup," Marotta said.

An update on the September start-of-school plan is expected at Thursday's School Committee meeting, the superintendent said.


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