Behind the scenes reopening Massachusetts’ 5th biggest school district

BROCKTON, Mass. — With more than 650 students, there’s only so much space inside West Middle School.

The stage in the auditorium, generally reserved for performances and music lessons, will serve as a classroom next month. So will the auditorium’s balcony. And portions of the gymnasium.

“Every available space we use. We utilize it to the maximum,” West Middle School Principal Carlton Campbell said.

Campbell said school administrators are forced to think outside the box--and outside the classroom--to accommodate the roughly 15,000 students returning to full-time, in-person learning Apr. 26.

“How do you make something like this happen? I mean you’ve got to be creative,” Campbell said.

Walking the halls, things certainly look different: lockers are zip-tied shut, sanitation stations take up a corner in every classroom, and desks are at least three feet apart to comply with federal and state guidelines.

Campbell said in a typical year, West Middle classrooms hold 25-30 students, but will now seat only 16-18 with social distancing.

“If we have any more than that, we’ll have some issues,” Campbell said.

Brockton Superintendent Mike Thomas said the larger concern is lunch, because although regulators have relaxed social distancing guidelines in the classroom, cafeteria seats must still be six feet apart.

“That’s the biggest challenge about coming back,” Thomas said. “If we didn’t have the outside option, we’d be feeding kids from 8 in the morning until they leave, because of the 6 feet [requirement]. There’s just not enough room in the cafeteria to feed all those students.”

To make it work, Thomas said the district is renting large tents so students can eat outside.

Another hurdle to overcome, Thomas said, is getting bus service back up to full speed. Some of the drivers haven’t been needed in more than a year. Last month, the Mass. Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education lifted capacity limits and physical distance guidelines on school buses.

But middle and high school students are limited to just two per seat if they live in districts “with high prevalence” of COVID-19 transmission. According to Thomas, this means Brockton Schools can’t put more than 44 students on a bus at one time.

There are around 17,000 students attending Brockton public schools. Thomas said 2,000 families are opting to keep their children at home and fully remote. He said that will make it a little easier to keep the remaining students spaced apart.

“We’ve cleaned out a lot of clutter, things teachers like to have in their room, the extra bookshelves, just things that make it warm. But a lot of that we had to take out just for extra space,” Thomas said.

And what if there’s another spike in cases? Campbell said they’re trying to stay flexible.

“We’re not going to sit here and make excuses and cry. We just need to adapt and make it work. Because everyone is going through the same thing, so no excuses at the end of the day. We’ve just got to get it done,” Campbell said.

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