K-5 students could return to school full-time by March 15; some say $62 million school budget proposal isn’t enough

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Feb. 9, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

Supt. of Schools Paul Austin unveiled a proposal to the school committee last night for all non-remote K-5 students to return to school full-time (five days a week) on or before March 15, with students in grades 1 to 5 attending full days.

The proposal also calls for middle school students to attend in-person classes on alternating Wednesdays, effective on or before March 17.

Currently all Hingham Public Schools students except those who are fully engaged in remote learning participate in a hybrid model (a combination of in-person and remote learning).

School committee and Hingham Education Association (teachers' union) approval is needed for the proposal -- which will be posted on the hinghamschools.org website on Tuesday -- to become a reality. The school committee will vote on the proposal at its Feb. 22 meeting.

School committee member Liza O'Reilly reported that the subcommittee that conducts negotiations with the union met with the HEA on Monday to present the proposal and will meet again next week and during the following week. "We shared this proposal with the HEA for their initial feedback. . . . We're not at an impasse," O'Reilly said. "We're working collaboratively with the union to finalize all the details."

She noted that the school committee can vote on the proposal without the HEA's final approval. "We're working with them on the details," she said.

Committee Chair Kerry Ni called the proposal "a great step forward. This is a big deal -- getting our youngest learners back to school."

Hybrid learning will continue at the secondary level, with the requirement that this model will be reconsidered on a monthly basis.

The middle and high school principals will establish advisory committees consisting of their respective school councils and a health sector professional to make recommendations for consideration of advancing in-person learning.

The goal is 35 hours per week of structured learning time, with social distancing and other protocols in place.

There is no proposal yet to return Hingham High School students to school full-time due to space issues and other considerations, but Austin said school administrators are working on it.

While some parents were pleased with the proposal, Julie Donovan said she found not bringing middle and high school students back to full in-person learning to be "shocking, insulting, and super-disappointing."

She expressed concern that these students are being left behind -- that they have already missed nearly a year of full-time school. "I'm begging you to please include a plan for their return -- it doesn't need to be a perfect one," Donovan said. "These students can't continue to sit in a room by themselves on Zoom -- they need to be with their peers and teachers when they are learning calculus [and other subjects].

I'm begging and praying that you will please reconsider including the upper grades. This is a crisis, and every hour that goes by is a missed opportunity. We need to get the entire HPS population back to school."

Susan O'Horo said while she's happy for the younger kids, she feels sad for the middle and high school students. She noted that new Center for Disease Control guidelines will be announced this Wednesday. "Education is essential, and we should do everything we can do to get these students back in school."

Member Carlos Da Silva expressed appreciation for the effort that went into developing the proposal, adding that he would like to see a start date of March 1 for K-5 students and "to do whatever we can to get middle school and high school students back to school for more hours. The seniors didn't have a great year last year [due to COVID-19-related issues]."

Austin reiterated HPS's commitment to increase in-person learning for all students in the "safest and most responsible manner possible" and to the "safe operations of our school system that ensures -- to the best of our ability -- the health and safety of all 3,927 students and 700-plus staff members."

This proposal prioritizes the youngest learners and is based on the changing conditions of COVID-19 in the HPS schools and in the community, the anticipated availability of a vaccine for staff in the very near future, scientific evidence (indicating a reduction in COVID-19 cases across the state, the community, and in the schools), the need to ensure consistent structured learning time experiences, "and includes reasonable measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our schools, which impacts the health and safety of both staff and students," Austin said.

He also stated that regardless of the quality of HPS's remote learning program, "nothing can replicate in-person learning for our students, particularly our youngest learners in grades K-5. The longer we remain in hybrid, the greater risk for academic regression."

With proper health and safety protocols in place -- such as wearing face masks, handwashing, COVID-19 testing, and maintaining physical distancing -- the schools can be operated safely, Austin said.

Why now? Foster School (located at St. Jerome's in Weymouth) is in operation, leaving more spaces that can be used as classrooms, there has been no student in-school transmission since mid-December, pool testing -- which involves testing a large number of individuals, from teachers to students,  at one time, with quick test results -- is ongoing, and the Town of Hingham has been in the lower-risk "yellow" COVID-19 zone for three consecutive weeks.

"This is a great start, and we will continue working toward more," Austin said.

He shared that school administrators will advocate for a greater commitment from staff and families to voluntarily participate in COVID-19 testing programs and also for vaccinations for all staff as soon as possible, which he said is "absolutely essential."

In related business, the school committee supported advocating to state legislators, Gov. Charlie Baker, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that they prioritize public school personnel for access to the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

Fiscal 2022 school budget presented

In other business at the meeting, Austin presented the proposed Fiscal 2022 school budget of $62.28 million, representing a 9.79 percent increase over the Fiscal 2021 budget, including $2.49 million for recovery budget items. The budget proposal includes $15.6 million for special education.

These include academic and social/emotional supports and services for students to help them recover from the COVID-19-caused disruption to education and more than 20 positions such as literacy specialists, math tutors, a district-wide elementary writing specialist, special education administrators and teachers, speech and language therapists, a guidance counselor, and a world languages teacher.

Elizabeth Moulds thinks the budget proposal figure isn't high enough and encouraged the school committee to advocate to the board of selectmen and other town officials who review the school budget to "not just tread water, but to [allocate more money] to improve our students' experience." She was not alone in holding that opinion.

While she hopes there will be a full return to in-person learning for the next school year, Maura Gallagher suggested budgeting for portable classrooms to provide more space "in case things aren't back to normal -- hope for the best but plan for the worst," she said.

The Fiscal 2022 budget proposal and related documents are posted on the Hingham Public Schools website.

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