Wellesley Public Schools Superintendent Dr. David Lussier announced the district’s reopening timeline on March 18.
The elementary schools transitioned on April 5, while the middle school transitioned on the week of April 12. The high school will transition to a full in-person schedule on the week of April 26. Both the middle and high school reopening schedules are ahead of the reopening deadlines set by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Throughout the reopening process, the Wellesley Educators Association and WPS have sat on a joint health and safety committee, making recommendations to Dr. Lussier and the school committee concerning the district’s overall health and well-being. The joint health committee serves as a useful tool to bring forward concerns of the WEA.
Mr. Sanford Bogage, a math teacher at the middle school, said the WEA has worked “tirelessly” to incorporate teachers’ concerns with the legal requirements. Additionally, the Association offers weekly updates, office hours, and Zoom meetings, which Bogage said has made communication more clear.
Although a partial return to normalcy is in sight, the path leading up to reopening has been one with many logistical challenges.
“It’s really hard because so many things are happening at the federal, state, local town and district level. There are these four different competing entities all issuing guidance,” said Mr. Kyle Gekopi, President of the WEA. “Sometimes it synchronizes, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Educators worry about the social consequences associated with the different cohorts returning. Bogage said that reopening “feels like the first day of school.”
“There are a lot of kids that don’t know other kids yet, because they didn’t go to the same elementary school and weren’t in the same house in sixth grade, so they don’t mix all that much yet. A lot of seventh graders, probably some eighth graders, and especially sixth graders are going to meet kids that they don’t even know yet,” said Bogage.
Other teachers echoed similar concerns. Ms. Beth Garry, a fourth grade teacher at Upham, said that returning back would entail an acclimation period for her elementary school students.
“Everybody, all sixteen of my students, will be in this time, so we sort of start over in that regard. They’ll have to work out some kinks, and who’s playing with whom, and work out the friendships because some friendships have strengthened, some friendships have weakened, and now they’re all going to be put back together and figure some things out,” said Garry.
Delayed vaccination dates, coupled with the elementary schools’ early reopening date, posed a problem. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker set March 11 as the first day teachers were eligible to sign up for vaccination. However, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the recommended intervals between doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 21 and 28 days respectively. Furthermore, the vaccines become fully effective two weeks after the second shot, meaning that by April 5, many teachers may not be fully inoculated.
“It would have been nice to open it up and have teachers fully vaccinated before we bring kids in full time, given that we aren’t just bringing them back full time but also cutting that distance in half,” said Garry. “So it just seems like a big bite to chew from a teacher’s perspective to do all at once.”
In addition to the delayed vaccination dates for educators, teachers have criticized other aspects of the state government’s vaccination and reopening plan.
Governor Baker did not address the plan put out by the WEA’s state organization, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, to have firefighters and EMS providers help vaccinate teachers quicker. Teachers also said the state reopening timeline was abrupt, not leaving enough time to adjust and prepare for MCAS.
“It’s really unprecedented that the Commissioner of Education suddenly has this authority to mandate that schools go back. We’re lucky in Wellesley that we’ve already been hybrid so that we’re able to make those changes without as much of an effect,” said Bogage. “But it still seemed like, after so much time waiting for almost an entire year, they announced very suddenly, that this has to happen,” said Bogage.
Despite these challenges, Gekopi believes that Wellesley has done fairly well.
“Wellesley has been constantly ahead of the curve in the type of mitigation strategies and standards that we have implemented, and we have had testing since opening, which is incredible. We have the data, we have the support, we have the behavior training to follow the reopening plan,” said Gekopi.
However, many school districts are not as fortunate as Wellesley. Many districts that are more crowded and not as well funded will face many more obstacles than Wellesley.
“There are some districts that still don’t have [testing], and still some that have only had it for a few weeks,” said Gekopi. “Not every district is in a lovely position. There are a lot of districts that are not in lovely positions.”
In addition to Wellesley, the WEA hopes to advocate on behalf of other districts.