Local superintendents ready to return to school

Jim Sullivan, The Daily News of Newburyport, Mass.
·3 min read

Mar. 6—NEWBURYPORT — Public school kids will be headed back to the classrooms full time next month after the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gave Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley the authorization to send students and teachers back to in-person classes on Friday.

Students in Newburyport and in the Pentucket Regional School District have been attending class in a remote/hybrid model for most of the current school year. The state's 8-3 decision on Friday gives Riley the ability to tell school districts that they may no longer use hybrid or remote learning models if he concludes that students may safely return to the buildings after further consultation with medical experts.

Riley has previously announced that he would like to see all elementary school students back in class, five days a week by April 5.

Pentucket Regional School District Superintendent Justin Bartholomew said that middle and high school students will be phased into the in-person learning model soon after their elementary school counterparts.

Bartholomew added he is confident that Pentucket will be able to make the transition as smoothly as possible next month.

"All year long, and especially this year, you are always preparing for the next pivot," Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew said his regional school district has been working alongside the health agents and each of its three towns as well as school administrators who have been preparing for a return to school ever since the summer.

"It seems to me that this is exactly what we were looking for in the summer," he said. "If we had a directive like this in the summer that said, 'hey, here is what is going to happen. Everyone is going to go back at this distance and everyone is going to start hybrid,' that would have saved a lot of headaches, time and effort and finger pointing back and forth."

Newburyport Superintendent Sean Gallagher echoed Bartholomew's comments.

"We have been planning for this for months anyways," Gallagher said. "Our philosophy has been to be proactive to get all of our details in place because eventually we know that we're going to be bringing more students back."

Newburyport currently has surveillance testing in place and COVID-19 cases are on the decline, both in the community and in the schools, according to Gallagher.

"All of our safety protocols have been stellar," Gallagher said. "We have been working with our teachers and administrators over the past couple of weeks and really doing a lot of planning to bring more people back, in person. It is still a work in progress but we do have a School Committee meeting on Tuesday night to really look at what more in person learning is going to look like."

Riley's previous statements indicate that each district will need to keep at least three feet of distance between each student desk.

"That three foot minimal distance is completely acceptable," Bartholomew said. "It has been done in other places and I think that is the type of information that we have been waiting to hear."

Bartholomew went on to say that Friday's decision has left him in an optimistic mood.

"Regardless of how people feel, this might be the sun breaking through the clouds," he said. "We can finally see where we are heading. It's a complicated situation, a lot of people have strong feelings on both sides of it. But no one is going to disagree that you can learn far better in person than you can remotely. No one is going to debate that. If this is a mechanism to make that happen safely and it is safe, obviously we are going to be 100% supportive."

Staff writer Jim Sullivan covers Amesbury and Salisbury for The Daily News. He can be reached via email at jsullivan@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3145. Follow him on Twitter @ndnsully.