The first day of school can be a nerve-wracking experience for parents, students and teachers.
But Saugus Union School District officials are doing what they can to take stress and anxiety out of the equation, as much as possible.
Ahead of the Saugus Union School District bringing back first- and second-graders to campus for the first time since March of last year — although the district has already had small cohorts of special needs students attending in-person — school officials demonstrated the districtwide improvements and upgrades made to make teachers, other staff and students be as safe as possible. The costs included approximately $7.4 million in HVAC upgrades and replacements, with $1.8 million going to powered economizers to insure additional outside air and bipolar ionization components, and $635,231 on PPE items, to make there are partitions, stickers and additional signage for students, according to district officials.
As Nick Heinlein, assistant superintendent of business services, explained during a tour of West Creek Academy, he didn’t want to describe the district’s situation as “fortunate” due to the devastating impacts COVID-19 has had on the community. But the district had been planning a number of upgrades on campuses already due to Measure EE when the necessary and recommended equipment upgrades associated with COVID-19 started to come in from the county’s Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control. So the confluence of events made Heinlein confident the district is doing everything it can in terms of safety.
“We have tried so many things to make sure we’re providing a safe environment for our staff and students,” Heinlein said. “It’s quite remarkable.”
For example, in the last year, the district has changed about 515 air conditioning or HVAC units in order to add a state-of-the-art filter that allows the units to meet the recommended standards, which includes things like the percentage of air that can circulate and how fine a filter must be added. (There are more than 500 units, but the newer campuses have equipment capable of handling the increased workload the filters add to the HVAC units, and so they didn’t have to be replaced, Heinlein added.)
The district is allowed to have 25% of a campus population back, and school officials identified first- and second-graders as having the highest need for in-person instruction, which is why they’re being brought back first — as those parents and students are comfortable returning to campus. (There are also approximately 2,900 students in the 9,000-plus student district who’ve enrolled in the SUSD digital learning academy — as in online-only instruction, for the rest of the year, according to Saugus Superintendent Colleen Hawkins.)
As Principal Sue Bett and Assistant Principal Elizabeth Balena walked through the West Creek Academy campus, they pointed to changes noticeable everywhere: The water fountains have been covered to prevent their usage — students are asked to bring water bottles, but they’ll be available if the need arises, Balena mentioned. Bett noted ubiquitous directional arrows so when children are walking around, they’ll be moving in the same direction, spaced apart.
Both administrators also mentioned the increased regular cleanings that are part of the safety measures, with Bett joking that she can pretty much set her clock to the regularly scheduled visits from the custodial staff as they constantly work their way in and around the campus and its classrooms.
And, of course, the classroom environment itself will look different. For certain classroom situations, teachers will have protective shields at their disposal for any necessary interaction that requires a closer proximity for even more than a few minutes. But generally, the teachers will be 6 feet away, with personal protective equipment on, which is also something the schools are asking for help with parents on, in terms of teaching kids.
“When working with parents, one of the recommendations they’ve been saying is to ‘(Have your child) practice wearing your mask for two and a half hours,’” Bett said, listing some of the information she shared with parents at an informational meeting Wednesday evening. “Because when they’re going to be in the classroom, they’re going to wear their mask the entire time they’re here.”
Hawkins also said the district planned a staggered return with some schools starting one week, and some starting next, which has been consistent with the district’s overall strategy — going as safely and methodically as possible to deal with a new campus environment that has little in the way of precedent.
“We wanted to make sure that we could provide support if we needed to — with our (teachers on special assignment), so we weren’t going to be spread too thin with staff and so we could focus on these groups and address any concerns,” Hawkins said. “And, so we can adapt — if we need to adapt to anything, we can. And that’s how we’ve approached this thing the whole way through.”