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FRAMINGHAM, MA — Most students in Framingham are closing in on a year away from school buildings due to the coronavirus pandemic, and a large group of parents is putting pressure on officials to bring students back right away.
But within the last week, Framingham officials have signed up for a new state program that may help bring students back to school buildings and keep them there, officials say.
Framingham's path to reopening has been bumpy this school year. The district did bring hundreds of high needs students back to buildings in the fall, but they switched back to remote learning in December after evidence of community spread of coronavirus.
Milestones for bringing back the general education students have shifted due to a steep rise in local coronavirus cases beginning early in the fall. Last Friday, the district pushed back a return to buildings from Jan. 27 to Feb. 3 for most high-needs students, and Feb. 10 for the rest of the student population. At the beginning of the year, the district had hoped for a hybrid return in November.
Larry Simmons, a parent of two Framingham students, says a group of hundreds of parents have coalesced in recent months around urging the School Committee to stick to a return plan. Simmons — and other parents — fear that keeping students out of school any longer is worse for them than the coronavirus risk.
"The impact to [students] isn't being properly weighed against the risks," Simmons said.
Simmons has placed his elementary-aged children in a YMCA program where they go to take remote classes with other students. His children are in a social setting, but still learning remotely. His second-grader can focus on a screen for about 2-1/2 hours, but not much longer, he says.
Framingham Superintendent Robert Tremblay said the district has been "conservative" when it comes to reopening schools, but not much more than other urban districts like Worcester and Marlborough, which are also fully remote.
In December, Tremblay and former Health Director Dr. Sam Wong decided on metrics to bring students back to school: fewer than a 4 percent citywide positive test rate and fewer than 10 cases per day per 100,000 residents. As of Jan. 11, Framingham had a test rate of 7.6 percent and was adding more than 62 cases per day per 100,000 residents.
Simmons says some parents were frustrated by a survey the district sent to parents asking them to pick whether they wanted students to return to classrooms, or stay in remote mode. The survey was almost split evenly between those two options, school district officials have said. But it wasn't until after the survey that the district released those return metrics.
Last week, the district applied to bring coronavirus pool testing to Framingham for six weeks paid for by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). Framingham had not been approved for the program as of Tuesday, but Tremblay said it would be a "game changer" for a return to buildings.
"This will create confidence in the community," he said. "Without testing in place, you're just hoping for the best."
With pool testing, the district could monitor for community spread of the virus within individual classrooms. If infections pop up, only the students in the positive classroom would have to switch back to remote learning rather than an entire school or the entire district.
Framingham also recently began offering coronavirus tests to teachers and staff, which is meant to inspire confidence along with precautions like physical distancing and providing personal protective equipment. The district also recently advertised dozens of jobs that would help teachers come back to buildings.
Simmons lamented that students in nearby districts, including Natick, Sudbury and Ashland, are in buildings and even participating in athletics. He highlighted that teams from around the region are using Loring Arena for hockey, but Framingham school teams aren't allowed to.
"It just isn't right, our kids deserve the same chance to do activities and learn in person as our neighboring towns," Simmons said.
School Committee Chair Adam Freudberg said parents should continue to come to public meetings to talk about their concerns. He also struck an optimistic tone about pool testing and that it could see Framingham students back in classrooms for the first time since schools closed in March 2020.
"We all understand the complexity of the virus and the impact is has on our community and individuals," Freudberg said. "We'll know the facts with pool testing. It can't come soon enough for the major risk reduction that it'll bring us."
Tremblay will update the School Committee at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m. about the school reopening progress.