SALEM, MA — Salem Superintendent of Schools Stephen Zrike said Wednesday that, while he would like to get students back in the classrooms as soon as possible, ventilation issues in some schools mean November is the likely target for a return to in-classroom learning throughout the city.
Zrike hosted a weekly Facebook Live meeting Wednesday afternoon where he praised the patience of everyone during the first week of school and pointed to a break in the schedule in November when he is hoping to get the majority of the students who will be doing in-classroom learning this school year back in the buildings.
"We're evaluating it," he said. "I'd like to say it's a going to be before Nov. 1. If we can, we will look into it earlier. But I don't want to make promises (that can't be kept)."
While the rates of coronavirus have dropped substantially in the city over the past month to the point where it would be possible to bring back more students than the few who are in priority classrooms to start the year, Zrike said ventilation issues at Bentley, the Horace Mann School and non-academic areas of Salem High School complicate matters.
"First and foremost we need to get the ventilation working as intended throughout the schools," he said.
He said ventilation systems in most schools are working sufficiently, with minor repairs, but three of the schools require more extensive repairs that will extend into next month.
"Please know we're going to work very hard to get kids back in school," he said, adding that consideration could be made to bring some classes that can only be done in person — such as some high school shop classes — back earlier in the schedule.
He said, overall, the first week of mostly remote learning has gone as well as could be expected.
"It was nice to see students," he said. "Not the way we want to see them. We want to see them back. But it was nice to see them (on screen) learning and engaging."
Zrike addressed the shortage of school-issued laptops to start the year — saying he expects an order of 400 Chromebooks through the Department of Education to arrive next week and that those will be distributed as quickly as possible. He said an order for 1,600 was placed in April, but they have been on back order ever since.
"We do know it's an issue," he said. "We are very hopeful they will be in next week."
Zrike said Salem is proceeding with high school sports and that information on practices will be provided when the Northeastern Conference athletic directors determine the timetable.
Competitive cheer, football and volleyball have been moved to the "Fall 2" season that will hopefully begin in late February, but the NEC schools reversed course from a decision to delay all fall sports last month and will proceed with cross country, field hockey, golf and soccer with rules modifications to limit physical contact and promote social distancing.
Zrike said the marching band and jazz band are also making plans to begin outdoor practices.
He thanked parents for their understanding during any glitches to start the year, and allowed things will change along the way as the schools charter new territory amid the health crisis.
"We are going to make a lot of adjustments and a lot of pivots," he said. "We are going to make mistakes. ... For people who strive to be perfect, this is going to be very hard."
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