DERRY — Getting the school district’s children back in class in the best way possible topped the agenda at July 28’s hours-long school board meeting in Derry.
But not everyone is happy with what the district wants to do as the new year gets closer.
The displeased included a large percentage of Derry’s Education Association, with members standing outside the gymnasium prior to the meeting at Gilbert H. Hood Middle School holding signs and saying safety for all must be the top priority.
After hours of discussion, presentations and public input, the school board voted 5-2 to move forward with an in-person plan to bring students back to school later this month.
After presenting several options at an earlier meeting this month, members of the Derry Cooperative School District Comprehensive Task Force presented the preferred plan for a complete reopening on-site with increased health and safety measures in place and a one-week phased-in process for a return to the classroom for the 2020-2021 school year.
Families would also be given the option to continue with remote learning.
Any plan put in place also has to be ready to shift at a moment’s notice due to changes in COVID-19 numbers, officials added.
The reopening plan would include opening all school facilities, increased health and safety measures, social distancing of 6 feet in all common areas, staff and students required to wear face coverings and a limited access to family members and other visitors at the schools. Anyone coming inside would also be required to wear a mask.
The classrooms would also have students spaced out 3- to 6-feet apart and kept within specific groups, or cohorts throughout the day. Desks would face the same direction and students would have assigned seats. There would also be efforts to minimize any sharing of materials among students. Students would not be required to wear masks while in their seats.
The district’s buildings would be kept sanitized regularly, according to business administrator Jane Simard.
Floors in buildings will be marked to show proper distancing. Signs will point out specific hand sanitizer stations, with hundreds to be installed in all buildings, and personal protective gear will be available to all staff.
There will also be clear desk shields for teachers, and air filtration and system upgrades will keep fresh air flowing, Simard said.
But members of Derry’s teachers union said in a statement that a poll of members showed that 79% did not support this option.
“The plan currently being proposed by the school district administration does not keep our students, families and staff safe,” the statement read. “The Derry Education Association is demanding that safety be the top priority in deciding when and how to return students to schools.”
Nearly 200 teachers signed a petition voicing their concerns about the reopening plan. Some of the teachers and staff holding signs outside prior to the meeting said more needed to be included in any reopening plan.
“We want to ensure students and staff are given the safest precautions we can,” said Lindsey Young, a district occupational therapist. “There are no easy answers.”
Meg Morse-Barry, president of the Derry Education Association said the plan did not satisfy the safety needed for educators to feel comfortable returning to the classroom.
"This puts teachers and staff and our families at elevated risk," she said.
Dave Levesque, a computer teacher, said he worried that more social distancing wasn’t required in the plan, saying a 3-foot minimum in the classroom may not be enough.
“And we don’t want to come to work and then be scared to come home,” he added.
He added that hearing certain people in school administration say it's just a teacher's job is not fair.
"Our teachers are not doctors of medicine," Levesque said. "We are scared, does that make you upset? I'm sorry, but punishing us any more doesn't help. We know schools won't be the same. How are we as teachers who don't feel safe, how do we comfort students who don't feel safe?"
Jenna Paradise, a four-year substitute teacher in the district, said she appreciated all the hard work that went into the plan, but added she doesn’t think the option is quite ready.
“Our numbers are good, but the virus is not gone,” she said. “This version of school is a shell of what it was.”
Superintendent MaryAnn Connors-Krikorian said a lot of good work went into formulating the options for returning to school, with the task force in place made up of many stakeholders including administration, community members, educators, health experts and more, giving input and thoughts on the best way to return.