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In a long anticipated culmination of events, students will at last be allowed back for in person instruction

(Somerville Wire) – With frustrations from parents reaching a climax and addressing a slew of maintenance problems in buildings, Somerville schools are finally ready to open—following a gradual, phased in approach. On February 17, the Somerville School Committee unanimously voted to approve the Memorandum of Agreement with the Somerville Educators Union, deciding upon return thresholds for in person instruction. Now, on March 4, a selected population of students will begin reentering classrooms, a development that has been long anticipated.

“I think that what’s important here is that how we derived [the plan] was a true collaboration and conversation with the SEU, to really understand what union members were feeling and to also be able to look at what was happening with the virus, both in the Somerville area and beyond us,” said superintendent of Somerville Public Schools Mary Skipper, during the meeting. “[We came] up with something that was a compromise that would help our educators not only be safe but to feel safe, and the same for our students.”

A release from Somerville Public Schools stated that the plan would prioritize students with high needs, English language learners, and pre-k and kindergarten students, with grades 1-8 to follow. A selected group of special education students has already been involved in a pilot program. Starting on March 4, selected high needs students will attend school in-person for four days a week, with remote learning on Wednesdays. On March 18, additional high needs students, English Learners (K-8), Multilingual Learning Lab students, and Next Wave/Full Circle students will also be in school four days a week, learning virtually on Wednesdays. On March 25, all pre-k and kindergarten students, Somerville Child Care Center students, and additional special education students will follow a hybrid-learning model. From April 1-29, students in grades 1-8 will, depending on their grade levels, gradually begin the hybrid model.

Part of the reason why schools were not able to open sooner has been because of challenges with the buildings. As in-person learning begins, the schools will be entering a phase that has been termed “Plan B,” by Rich Raiche, director of infrastructure and asset management. About 200 portable air filtration units have been mobilized to be used in schools, an action that was taken upon the discovery of problems relating to ventilation systems. Raiche said that approximately 285 issues were identified, with 98 being capital improvement items, the majority being at the Winter Hill school. Honeywell International Inc, the company in charge of the schools’ HVAC systems, was responsible for the deficiencies.

“The issues range significantly from simple cleaning of dust from fan blades to trouble-shooting systems that are not performing up to design specifications to motors that require full replacement,” said Raiche. “In some instances, responses are simple to define, but for some instances, responses will require investigation.”

Rami Bridge, president of the SEU, said that he wishes there could have been more transparency about the status of the buildings and what has been done to ensure that the spaces are safe. Regarding the problems with Honeywell, he said that he is not surprised, as he had experienced ventilation issues in his classroom for years. Parts of the challenges speak to a lack of investment in schools at large, he added.

“I’m not surprised it takes a long time to fix all the issues,” said Bridge. “What we’re talking about is years of neglect. I think it’s important to remember in these moments that that neglect is not just on the part of Honeywell or the City—this is also state and federal government responsibility here. This is what happens when you chronically underfund schools and municipalities. We don’t have the money to do the things that we need to do well. What happens is that things fall into a state of disrepair, and then when there’s a problem, it’s not easy to quickly fix it.”

Parents have been deeply vexed by the amount of time that it has taken for students to be able to return to school in person, describing remote learning as a situation that does not allow young people to thrive. Leah Bloom, a member of Somerville Parents for an Equitable and Safe Opening, explained that many students with special needs have suffered serious regressions. She said that she remains critical of how the City handled school reopening, with gyms and bars being prioritized over the education of children. Furthermore, she said that high school students have not been adequately accounted for in the reopening plan.

“The communication has been inconsistent and unreliable, and that’s incredibly frustrating,” said Bloom. “Because of that, there has been a huge erosion of the public trust. It’s upsetting, because Somerville to me has felt like a place where we all are in it together. There’s a strong sense of Somerville as a community. Unfortunately, this situation with all of the delays around school reopening, the miscommunication, lack of communication, and changing what the plans are, has made it feel like parents can’t trust the City.”

For Bridge, the frustrations have all been warranted, but the limiting factor has been the ability of people to be able to get into buildings.

“If we could go back in time and have more money from the State and allocate funds appropriately to make sure we’re taking care of the physical infrastructure of our buildings, then we would have been in a very different place than we are in now,” said Bridge. He added, “In Somerville, we were engaging in a different kind of process, where the School Committee and educators were working together. …That process was longer and slower than most people anticipated, and it’s still not the factor that slowed us down.”

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