METHUEN -- Admitting their plan is imperfect, school administrators went before the School Committee Thursday night with "full humility" to present a reopening plan that created nearly as many questions as it answered.

The meeting, which was still going on as of press time, focused on the main prongs of the plan, including a phased reopening, a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote or online learning and a full online model called the Remote Academy.

School Committee members peppered Superintendent Brandi Kwong with dozens of questions while also offering some suggestions and observations.

Kwong warned members that there were many questions she would most likely be unable to answer until mid-August, or later, because there are so many unknowns, including the uncertain nature of the virus, questions about additional state and federal mandates and funding, and, finally, how many students and staff will actually be returning to school using the hybrid model and how many will take the online option.

"Over the course of the school year, we will need fluidity with what we are doing," she said during the Zoom meeting. "We may have to shut schools down again. We have to be prepared."

One parent, Kelly Beekman of 26 Rolling Ridge Lane, emailed a comment to the committee for the public hearing portion of the meeting, raising that very issue.

"Students will come into school sick," she said, noting that it appeared the plan was allowing too many students into the school, even with the hybrid approach. "They will be meeting indoors ... students will transmit asymptomatically. You can't trust temperatures being taken at home."

She added that unless there was a way to limit the number of students coming back to school, "it will cause a COVID rebound."

Another parent took a much bleaker view of the plan, saying she didn't think students should return to school at all.

"This is a dangerous and unpredictable virus," said Therese Whitcomb of 223 Forest St. "Don't experiment with our precious children. It's still not safe. Wait until there's a vaccine."

Methuen Education Association President Jonathan Becker, a social studies teacher at the high school, didn't endorse the plan but he didn't reject it, either.

"The MEA has been a part of the implementation team and early planning and will continue to work with the district through bargaining on final plans for the school year," Becker said. "The union is pleased that the District's proposed plan calls for a remote start and phased in approach to in-person learning.

"However, there are still many concerns and questions, particularly surrounding the details of the hybrid phase. We have been working collaboratively with the district thus far, giving input, and will continue to do so as we get member feedback."

Kwong stressed to the committee that the safety of students and staff was the number one priority.

As such, every student in every grade will be required to wear a mask when they are inside, she said. The schools will also be enforcing a six-foot social distancing policy in all classrooms and general meeting areas, such as the cafeteria.

But committee members expressed some doubt about how well social distancing would work.

Karen Hallbauer asked about the "feasibility and likelihood that social distancing can be maintained. I know the high school won't be at full capacity, but students will pour out into corridors. They aren't being escorted."

Assistant Superintendent Ron Noble said work was underway to create routes in the hallways that would guide students and keep them apart.

At the beginning of his part of the presentation of the plan, Noble admitted the plan wasn't ideal.

"We are presenting this with utmost humility," he said. "We know it's imperfect, we know it's not what we want for our kids. We want them back in school. But we're in a different place and this is our best thinking to date."

Hallbauer also wanted to know who would be sanitizing the desks between classes, when students are in the corridors.

Noble said the district was complying with DESE guidelines on cleaning protocols.

Kwong stressed early on in the meeting that an emphasis would be put on keeping windows open and allowing students to get outside as much as possible so they could remove their masks for so-called "mask breaks.'

"What happens in the winter when you can't open windows and can't go outside?" asked committee member Ryan DiZoglio. "What's the protocol for breaks when the weather is not suitable?"

Kwong said parents need to prepare their children to go outside every day, except when there are blizzards or torrential downpours.

"Windows will be open and we will go outside," she said. "Put your coats on and we're going outside. If it's drizzling, go outside. If it's snowing, you might not go out for recess. It might be cold, but all the guidelines we have, windows open and being outside is the best and safest place to go without masks on."

She added, "classrooms might be colder in winter, but we are going to keep the windows open. We are looking at year-round. We are going to have to shift our thinking."

The draft of the reopening will be sent to the state on Friday. The School Committee is scheduled to meet next week to vote on the final plan, which must be submitted to the state by Aug. 10. 




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