New super: Mahar, Union 73 school committees to decide whether to return before Labor Day

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/29/2020 3:59:50 PM

ORANGE — The school committees for Ralph C. Mahar Regional and Union 73 school districts will in the next several weeks determine if it is appropriate to wait until after Labor Day to have students return to school.

New Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Teahan-Zielinski announced on social media that reopening plans approved by school committees are due to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) by Aug. 10. Teahan-Zielinski, who took the reins from Tari Thomas about a month ago, said the Mahar and Union 73 school districts are planning town halls for public discussion of the reopening models once the committees approve them.

The Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District serves grades seven through 12 in Orange, New Salem, Wendell and Petersham. Union 73 consists of Orange Elementary and Petersham Center schools.

Peter Cross, chair of the Mahar School Committee, said his committee will meet Tuesday, Aug. 4, at 4 p.m. to decide whether to approve Mahar’s reopening plan.

“I think we’re getting closer,” he said.

Teahan-Zielinski said the administration has been working diligently on preparing three potential reopening strategies — fully remote learning, in-person education and a hybrid of the two.

The new superintendent explained remote learning would entail students learning electronically from home as they did for the end of the last academic year, while the so-called “all-in model” would send all students back to their brick-and-mortar school buildings, with required mask-wearing and social distancing during an abbreviated school day. The hybrid model would split students into two clusters — the A Group, which would attend school Mondays and Tuesdays and use remote learning the rest of the week, and the B Group, which would go to school Thursdays and Fridays and use remote learning the other three days.

Teahan-Zielinski said the school buildings would be student-free on Wednesdays so custodians could deep clean the facilities. The buildings would also be cleaned regularly, including as students move from room to room.

“Each model has its own challenges, its own scheduling,” she said. “I feel like I’m spinning plates in the air.”

Teahan-Zielinski said regardless of which model is selected, a fully-remote option must be offered to students who are immunocompromised or live with someone particularly susceptible to COVID-19. But, Teahan-Zielinski said, once a student has made the choice to learn remotely, he or she will not be able to change their mind until the end of the first semester.

Bussing also remains an issue. Due to social distancing, school buses can be only one-third full. She said adults will be asked to drive their students to school and adhere to that commitment.

In a post on social media, Teahan-Zielinski’s also mentioned the districts are still waiting to hear from the state about budget numbers, including Chapter 70 money. The Chapter 70 program is the major program of state aid to public elementary and secondary schools, which also establishes minimum spending requirements for each school district and minimum requirements for each municipality’s share of school costs, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s website.

“If there is a reduction in these funds, the models we have created will shift depending on the district’s reliance on these funds for the school district budget,” Teahan-Zielinski wrote.

Teahan-Zielinski took the time to thank community members for their continued patience throughout these unprecedented times. She said the school districts are working with various boards of health to maintain appropriate safety measures, as well as complying with recent DESE health protocols. She also mentioned the school districts are working “to ensure that sound educational methods are provided in all reopening models.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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