Plan for phased-in return to full in-person learning awaiting HEA ratification; Fiscal 2022 school budget process outlined

March 23, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

The School Committee reconvened in open session last night following an executive session to discuss a Memorandum of Agreement with the Hingham Education Association, Unit A, regarding the reopening of the Hingham Public Schools.

On March 15, the School Committee expressed support for the administration's proposed phased-in approach to return Grades 6-12 to full in-person learning. Implementation is contingent on HEA approval of the plan.

At that time Supt. of Schools Paul Austin presented a proposal for phased-in approaches to returning non-remote Grades 6 through 8 and also grades 9 through 12 students to full in-person learning. This would result in the discontinuation of the hybrid learning model (a combination of remote and in-person instruction).

Implementation of the plan -- including the working conditions impacted by these proposals -- is contingent on ratification of an agreement by the HEA through collective bargaining negotiations, Austin explained during that meeting.

Last night, School Committee Chair Kerry Ni explained that an "Action from executive session" item was included on the agenda since under the Open Meeting Law, all anticipated agenda items must be posted 48 hours in advance of a meeting.

"We were hoping to have something to report tonight, but we're not there yet," Ni said.

Teacher expresses concerns about plan

During the next item on the agenda -- the public comment period -- Nicole Lytle, an English teacher at Hingham High whose three children graduated from the HPS -- shared her personal view of the proposed plan, "not as an official member of the high school staff."

At no time has any teacher said that he or she prefers hybrid to in-person learning, she said. "No one has refused to come back to work."

That said, she explained some of her concerns, including the timing (right after April vacation, during which many families could have plans to travel) and the fact that many teachers will not have completed their vaccination cycles by the targeted return to school dates. "Would it be possible to push back the dates by two weeks?" she asked.

Lytle referenced the Centers for Disease Control's recently updated K-12 guidance recommending at least three feet of physical distancing in elementary schools when there is a face mask requirement (regardless of whether community transmission is low, moderate, substantial, or high). Other updated guidance relates to middle and high schools. See full details at CDC Updates Operational Strategy for K-12 Schools to Reflect New Evidence on Physical Distance in Classrooms | CDC Online Newsroom | CDC.

Lytle also noted that the CDC continues to recommend at least six feet of physical distancing between adults in a school building and between adults and students, as well as in common areas such as school lobbies, corridors, and auditoriums.

In her opinion, "There is no clear picture of the next phase. There are still unresolved questions," she said. "We want to come back, but with our concerns about our and students' safety addressed in a meaningful way. Why not delay the return so that teachers can finish their vaccine cycles, with all the details explained to the staff and families?"

Her comments were not addressed by the School Committee or Austin, because the public comment period is not for that purpose.

Proposed plan details

The return to full-person learning proposal calls for all non-remote Hingham Middle School students to attend school five days per week, for 4-1/2 hours (7:30 – 11:55 a.m.) starting March 29. Blocks A through E would increase from 40 to 47 minutes each, with at least three feet of physical distancing between students.

Most students would be dismissed at 11:55 a.m. to return home to participate in their elective classes remotely during the afternoon as they do now.

Under the current proposal, on April 26 -- the day after Spring vacation ends -- all HMS students would attend school five full days in-person, from 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., including lunch.

Blocks A – G would meet in-person, but some elective classes may need to be limited due to enrollment, which may result in individual schedule changes.

On April 5, all non-remote HHS students would attend school five days per week on the current schedule (8 a.m. – 12:05 p.m.), with at least three feet of physical distancing between students.

On April 26, all in-person HMS and HHS students would attend school five full days per week. Adjusted schedules will be available soon.

Overflow locations for students to livestream into their classes may be needed for classrooms that can't accommodate all students with three-foot spacing, according to Austin.

Lunchtime, he said earlier, would be a "very complex problem" and "a major hurdle to address," with all students spaced at least six feet apart and facing in the same direction.

The district will ensure that educators maintain at least six feet of physical distancing from students at both the HMS and HHS.

Massachusetts Elementary & Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has set an April 5 deadline for elementary students to return to five-days-a-week of in-person learning in order to receive credit for Structured Learning Time. April 28 is the deadline for middle school students to return to full in-person learning, with the high school deadline still to be announced.

Parents asked to return survey ASAP

In the meantime, Austin encourages families to return as soon as possible -- or by the end of business on Wednesday -- the survey indicating whether their students plan to return to full in-person learning or go the remote route.

Families must commit to having their student(s) learn remotely or in-person for the remainder of the school year. "If a family wishes to change from remote to in-person after April 17, requests will be subject to space availability and may take up to three weeks [to process]," Austin said.

About 70 percent of the surveys have already been returned. "Approximately three percent of the students at HMS and nine percent at HHS wish to remain in remote learning for the remainder of the school year [so far]," according to Austin.

Pooled testing update

Austin also urged parents who have not already done so to grant permission to HPS to allow their children to be pooled-tested for COVID-19. This involves testing a large number of students/staff at one time, with results coming back within a short timeframe.

Of the 487 students who have already been pooled-tested, 100 percent tested negative, according to Austin. Of the 1,516 staff members tested, only one has tested positive, in January.

Austin noted that most of the 160 students across the district who are currently in quarantine are high school athletes, as a result of two HHS team members who tested positive.

School Committee member Carlos DaSilva expressed concern that he has seen photos of coaches and athletes who weren't wearing face masks. "I am reiterating complaints I've heard that [in some cases] once the athletes leave the buses the face masks are off," he said. "If we want our students back in school, they have to be responsible and wear masks until this is over, and it's not over. Let's really do the things that will help us go back to school."

'We must remain vigilant'

Although staff and educators may be fully vaccinated soon, students are still not eligible to be vaccinated. "We have seen an increase in cases in COVID-19 both in  Hingham and in other Massachusetts communities, and even one community had to close its schools due to an outbreak," Austin said. "We must remain vigilant in order to ensure that our schools remain open, and we need your help [referring to the entire community]."

New state travel advisories

With April vacation on the horizon, Austin explained the new state travel requirements. "Monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in our schools and community is essential for the safe operations of our schools," he said. "We ask that everyone in the HPS community please adhere to all advisories in relation to travel and COVID-19."

• As of Monday, March 22, all visitors entering Massachusetts, including returning residents, are advised to quarantine for 10 days upon their arrival. Travelers in the following categories are exempt from this quarantine advisory:
• Those who have received a negative COVID-19 result on a test administered not more than 72 hours prior to their arrival in Massachusetts. Travelers may also test out of the quarantine advisory after arrival in Massachusetts, as long as they quarantine until receiving a negative test result.
• Anyone who is entering Massachusetts for fewer than 24 hours.
• Anyone who is returning to Massachusetts after being out of the state for fewer than 24 hours.
• Travelers who are fully vaccinated (i.e. who have received two doses of either the Moderna or Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines OR who have received a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, 14 or more days ago) and who do not experience symptoms.

The Cushing Street mPathy testing facility remains open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays,  and Saturdays until further notice. "If you have traveled, please test -- and await results -- prior to returning to school unless you have met the exemptions listed above," Austin said.

School budget

In other business at the meeting, Ni reported that the Advisory Committee Education Subcommittee recommended the proposed Fiscal 2022 school budget in a meeting yesterday, and that the Selectmen will vote on the overall budget, including the school budget proposal, tonight (Tuesday). The full Advisory Committee is expected to vote on the school budget Thursday night.

"Voters at the May 8 Town Meeting will make the final decision," Ni said. "I want to thank everyone for engaging in this process."

At their March 15 meeting, the School Committee unanimously approved the school administration's recommended Fiscal 2022 budget of $61,362,019 -- representing an 8.16 percent increase over the current year's budget -- including COVID-19 recovery expenses. This budget represents a $1.1 million reduction from the initial proposal.

The creation of a long-term strategic plan for the HPS will in part provide a guide for the future and an opportunity for school officials to assess HPS's resources and how to best put them to good use.

For full budget details, visit the School Committee link on the HPS website.

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