December 8, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
The past couple of weeks have been particularly challenging for the Hingham Public Schools.
While working toward increasing K-2 in-person learning time as a first priority -- with the higher grades hopefully to go that route at a later date — the number of positive COVID-19 test results in the HPS school community has been increasing. There's also been a rise in the number of students who have gone to fully-remote learning.
Supt. of Schools Paul Austin told the School Committee last night during a remote meeting that the number of positive tests in the school community the week following Thanksgiving was 10. "We have four COVID-19 cases already this week," he said. "That's pretty substantial, and a real concern. The numbers are not in our favor, and we're watching the situation very closely."
Austin made the decision for Plymouth River School to go to remote learning for at least yesterday and today following four members of the PRS school community testing positive for COVID-19 during the past week. Thirty-two students are currently quarantined.
"PRS could be in remote learning for the rest of the week," Austin said. "I've requested a rapid response testing unit there, which could arrive by [Wednesday or Thursday]."
He reiterated that the number one priority of HPS officials is "the health and safety of all our people," followed by providing a quality education for all students and stemming the spread of COVID-19 in the school community.
During the week of Nov. 29, more than 80 students and staff were in quarantine. "Currently, 14 of our staff are in quarantine, and our [teaching] capacity is becoming very thin," Austin said. "It's our job to care for those who are not well, and I wish them the best in their recovery, but I'm concerned about the numbers based on positive test results and the number of close contacts."
The Hingham Board of Health has a contact tracing program in place in accordance with state requirements, which involves notifying those who have come into contact with individuals who have tested positive, with related testing and quarantining measures in place.
Austin also noted that the full impact of HPS families traveling to other high-risk states during the Thanksgiving holiday won't be known for another week or so.
"We're trying to prepare people for possibly pivoting to remote learning, because so many staff members are out," he said. "We want to keep people in school safely. I'm saying this so you won't be surprised. It's very possible, but that would be a last-case scenario -- a decision made in concert with state and local health officials."
St. Jerome's update
At the same time, school officials are moving ahead with plans to rent space at St. Jerome's in Weymouth to accommodate K-2 students for full in-person remote learning. However, Austin said, "We're moving forward very cautiously."
A lot of HPS families traveled during the Thanksgiving holiday and hosted or attended gatherings, he noted. "We'll see how this plays out in the next few weeks."
Looking toward the winter break around Christmastime, Austin is asking families to avoid traveling to other high-risk states and spending time with people outside their immediate households. "It's hard to make that sacrifice, but we'll have to look forward to [doing that] in another year," he said.
These are important avoidances, according to Austin, "in order to continue with the hybrid [a combination of in-person and remote learning] model and as we consider moving to full in-person learning."
At the suggestion of a School Committee member, there are plans to make a video about COVID-19 to raise awareness even further in the school community.
A parent urged school officials to pay attention to health experts who say students are at low-risk of contracting COVID-19 while in school, further noting that data appears to show that kids are safer in school rather than out of school for various reasons.
In response, Austin pointed out that "we are obviously led by science and have been from the beginning. The School Committee is working with me and the Hingham Education Association [teachers' union] to bring more students into [more hours of] in-person learning, but a lot of people are nervous and we're doing so cautiously. We're still moving forward, and the objective is for students to remain in school as long as possible."
Austin further noted that the HPS have had "substantially fewer COVID-19 cases than neighboring districts that are offering fully in-person learning or have three-feet of social distancing in place [versus HPS' six feet]," he said. "That's the reason we've been able to stay with the hybrid model of four hours of in-person learning [on certain days] -- we're being very careful with our precautions. We'll keep that all in play as we move forward."
Another parent expressed concern that with all the contact tracing and related quarantines, students could end up with less in-person instruction than they have now.
"That's exactly what we're struggling with," Austin responded. "This is incredibly difficult for parents and students."
Student mental health concerns
Hingham resident Kristin Boal said that while understanding of the need to balance everyone's best interests, her main concern is the mental health of students who are struggling with the COVID-19 learning scenario. "Everybody is having issues," she said, "but you aren't living and breathing it every day, watching your healthy kids falling apart in front of you. Children need to be in school more, especially the little kids. There's still no black-and-white answer [as to when more in-person learning will be possible]."
Austin said he wasn't being defensive when he said that not a day goes by when school administrators don't talk about the mental health of the students, "and I'm sure the teachers are, too."
By the next School Committee meeting on Dec. 21, Austin hopes he will have more news to share about these issues. "We are continuing to work with the Hingham Education Association about a black-and-white plan to move forward [with more in-person learning]. We're working very hard to make that happen and to find that balance."
Austin said his heart goes out to families who are struggling with all of these COVID-19-related issues. "My grandchildren are struggling in a different state," he said.
School Committee member Michelle Ayer assured Boal that School Committee members also understand, because they, too, have children in the HPS. "This issue is on our minds with every meeting that we hold and in every conversation that we have," she said.