The Many Moving Parts for Back to School


It’s all coming down to the wire now for “back to school”, and Tuesday’s marathon Manchester Essex Regional School Committee meeting showed it’s a complex web of issues, punch lists, and factors as the district opens its virtual learning doors to elementary, middle, and high school students this year on Wednesday, Sept. 16. 

To be clear, students and parents are facing an all-remote academic program, the result of a unanimous vote last month that prioritized program consistency for students over a hybrid model that committee members feared would drive constant disruption.  The move impacts all schools in the district—Essex Elementary, Manchester Memorial, and M-E Middle and High Schools.   

Under remote learning, teachers, who have been training all spring and summer on remote teaching, will host all curriculum programs from their school facility classroom and connect out to students by computer.   

District staff and administration appeared Tuesday in a parade of detailed updates on student orientation, teacher training and programming, facilities updates and safety equipment upgrades, staffing scenarios, and finances.  By 9:30 p.m., it seemed the School Committee had exhausted every conceivable back to school detail.   

So, what can students and parents expect for the back to school “experience?”   

“Our goal is to provide many opportunities for relationship building and connection to ME Regional High School,” said Patricia Puglisi, principal of ME High School.   

First, a strong set up to the school year, with a lot of communication and a series of in-person, socially distanced orientation events to get off to a good start, together.  This process actually began last week, on August 28, when ME Regional High School opened its schedule and welcomed students by email and assigned them their guidance counselor.  These counselors are the “point-persons” for students and parents to get help with academic information, moving and managing courses, and coordinating with teachers.    

Similarly, elementary school parents will be contacted for orientation about student program and screenings with teachers by Zoom.  This will happen later next week.  Then, on Sept. 14 and 15 Essex Elementary School and Manchester Memorial Elementary will each host outdoor follow ups at their school so students and parents can safely orient, meet teachers and fellow students and learn about what to expect at the start of the year, and beyond.  They can learn about their daily schedules, resources, and pick up technology tablets for learning, if they need them. 

ME High School will also hold outdoor orientation, planned for Sept. 14 at Hyland Field.  The ME Middle School’s orientation will differ slightly and students will stay with “cohorts,” and teachers rotating.  Safety protocols will be in effect for students and staff.   

Originally, special education and at-risk students were to receive in-person instruction.  That’s still the plan, said Beaudoin, but the district is facing staffing challenges with special education teachers who have not been able to accept positions for safety reasons, and there are few alternates in the district.  In fact, she said, there is a 20 percent shortage in teaching staff district-wide due to medical or familial issues.   

Beaudoin said the district is working hard to address the shortfall without making compromises.  Nearly all school districts are facing the same challenge, she said. 

The decision last month to go “all remote” was especially hard for elementary school parents, who will have to supervise their children during the school day while also having to accommodate normal responsibilities.  Working parents, especially, have borne a big financial burden to COVID-related stay-at-home mandates.  The School Committee, for its part, says there are no good choices for back to school, and say the district will evaluate the decision monthly to determine next steps. 

And next steps are key, for all parents.  The big question is what metric will trigger a move from all remote to a hybrid program, where a portion of the school week will take place in person, in the classrooms. 

For this, Beaudoin shared a draft list of 12 indicators, or challenges, the district must address before moving to a hybrid school program.  All are technical obstacles to getting kids back in the building to rejoin their teachers and each other.  These include meeting safety guidelines, starting with community COVID levels, and extending to local tracing capacity and surveillance testing.  It includes group size management, staffing models, and agreement and clarity on budgets.  (“Staffing is the lynchpin,” said Beaudoin.)  

Clarity on metrics that will trigger consideration of the hybrid model will be taken up at the next School Committee meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 15. 

school committee, memorial elementary, me middle school, beaudoin, manchester essex regional school committee, guidance counselor, teacher, essex elementary school, me regional high school, patricia puglisi, safety protocols