The Reopening Task Force struggles to finalize a plan

A demo set-up of a classroom with seats and students six feet apart at Chelsea High School by Anibal Santiago

By Anibal Santiago

As members of Chelsea High School’s Class of 2020 finally receive their diplomas in a long-delayed commencement ceremony, school administrators are gearing up for a new academic year.

As late as mid-August, city leaders are continuing to brainstorm the district’s reopening plan. The 52-member Reopening Task Force collaborated with city officials, parents, students, community partners and staff to establish a plan that meets the needs of everyone.

“When the students come back, we have to pause and check on them first. I know they have been through a lot and it is important to acknowledge that before we dive into their scheduled curriculums,” said Chelsea Superintendent of Schools Almi Abeyta.

The 2020-2021 academic year for Chelsea High School students is projected to begin remotely on Wednesday, Sept. 16. But teachers still await a detailed plan on whether they will be conducting their lectures from the classroom or from their homes. The teachers are scheduled to report back to the school on Monday, Aug.  31, if the city approves them to do so.

The Superintendent released a final statement on August 17, to the students and families of Chelsea:

“As the start of school draws near, I am writing to inform you that Chelsea Public Schools will
start the 2020-2021 school year with full remote learning. Although we would love to welcome
students and staff back into school buildings, we believe we cannot do so safely with the current COVID-19 positivity rates here in Chelsea. Therefore, the School Committee voted earlier this week for all students to begin the year with remote learning, while at the same time monitoring the public health situation to determine when a partial return to school buildings may be possible,”

The city conducted a survey to hear from students and parents to hear what they had to say about the two options available to them. First, a hybrid option that would alternate students in and out of the classroom every other week assigning them into Cohort A and B. The week that group A were not on-site they would be learning virtually, but asynchronously while B is on-site. The second option was to commit to a fully remote learning plan.

The hybrid plan came with classroom layouts, school sanitization guidelines and new protocols for hallway traffic, bathrooms, and meal consumption areas. 15 students will be assigned to a classroom with one teacher. These students will form a ‘pod’ which they will follow throughout their school day to eliminate excessive interactions with other students.  Breakfast will be consumed in the classroom, and lunch may be offered at the end of their short-day schedule to be consumed at home. Sanitation stations will be scattered throughout the school to promote easy access to obtain a healthy environment for everyone in the building.

“All [personal protective equipment] for the new academic year was already purchased before the school year even ended, even though we did not have the detailed plan of what the new school year was going to look like. It was purchased just to be safe and have it available for our community,” said Almi.

Chelsea families returned 1,896 surveys. The findings were that 29 percent of them supported remote learning, 57 percent supported a hybrid plan, while 25 percent supported a full in-person learning plan.

“I’m not fully comfortable sending my sophomore back to school, but I also don’t know if my job will grant my request to work remotely if my daughter has to stay home,” said Cynthia Sanchez, a parent of a CHS sophomore and a single parent. “I do not have that many options to accommodate the needs of my daughter if she is to learn fully from home,” she said.

Some students said they wanted a schedule to follow because the final two quarters of this past school year lacked structure. Others said they wanted more support from teachers and staff for the upcoming year, including help learning new content versus just repeating and reviewing old content.

“My daughter would always tell me how bored she was at home,” said Sanchez, adding that the amount of school work she was doing seemed minimal.  Although initially thought her daughter was not doing her assignments, Sanchez said she soon realized that she just wasn’t given much to do.

Her daughter always required assistance from her mother with homework but soon after the remote learning started, Sanchez said it seemed weird how her assistance was no longer needed.

Parents shared similar experiences with their children as they spoke amongst one another said Sanchez. But Chelsea created an Online Learning Academy to provide more structure to their new school year approach.

The Chelsea Online Learning Academy, or OLA, is a program designed to accommodate those students and families who do not feel comfortable returning to school and would prefer to engage in full remote teaching and learning experiences. This program will follow the same strict schedule intended for students who would participate in a hybrid learning approach, if the decisions by the city leaders allow.

One of the major criticisms from teachers, staff, parents and students were the lack of learning accountability. Although teachers were in positions to lead the academic flow, they mentioned their fight against the current do to the lackadaisical grading policy. In the Reopening Plan 2020-2021 presentation, the city leaders listed the new guidelines for remote learning in the new school year.

Attendance will be tracked during both in-school and remote learning. Participation will be monitored with guidelines developed to enforce expectations of students during remote learning with synchronous lessons. This will require both camera and microphone usage during lessons to promote contributions to class discussions and seeking and using feedback. Grading will take place again, which eliminates the “everyone passes” option given to students following the initial COVID-19 shutdown.

For families like the Sanchez family who have a student with special needs, the school has provided a full in-person option for them, if the hybrid option is implemented.

“Some special groups of students with complex and significant needs will attend every week,” a statement provided in the reopening plan presentation by the task force. This would apply to any student that spends 75 percent or greater of their time in substantially separate classroom settings.

The majority of the families in Chelsea rely on the free breakfast and lunch services offered at the schools and are worried what that is going to look like once the remote learning starts in September. The city leaders have agreed to still provide these meals but has yet to implement the system in which it will be provided. There has been rumors of an in-person pick-up system for students or even some sort of delivery, but nothing has been finalized.

With just a few weeks before the new academic year, Chelsea leaders battle to make the right decision for their community that safely protects the city, while offering their students the education they deserve.

About Anibal Santiago 4 Articles
Anibal Santiago earned his BA degree in Communication at the University of Massachusetts and followed up with a MA degree in Journalism from Emerson College. With his experience as an Entertainment Reporter in Los Angeles, he hopes to take his career to the next level in broadcasting.