Q&A with Supt. Austin; Back to School Amidst Pandemic

Paul Austin
September 8, 2020 introduction by Carol Britton Meyer (Courtesy Photo)

Supt. of Schools Paul Austin shares his thoughts with Hingham Anchor readers about his first year with the Hingham Public Schools -- naming the pandemic as the most challenging situation he, like others, has ever faced. He also talks about what he likes best about Hingham and the HPS so far, what he expects to be the biggest challenge school officials, teachers, parents, and students will face during the new school year, the reopening plans for Sept. 16 -- the first day of school -- in-person instruction goals, and his positive attitude moving forward.

You have faced several challenges during your first year with Hingham Public Schools. Can you share your thoughts about each? 

I don't think there is an easy answer to this question, but  the obvious challenges were the fire at Hingham High School in the late spring of 2019 before I arrived; the flood at East just prior to school starting last fall; and, of course, the pandemic, which still rages on.  While the fire occurred prior to my arrival, the clean-up and restoration were ongoing for the entire summer.  I have to give the credit for all the work done to our facilities department leaders, Doug Foley, Katie Hartman, and their staff.   By working long hours and all summer, they were able to ensure that the renovations met our high standards and were completed before school began.  They dealt with the flood at East School just as well.  These folks in our facilities department are simply outstanding and are incredibly dedicated.  While both the fire and flood caused substantial damage, our crew was able to get the job done with as little disruption to education as possible.

As for the pandemic, I think it goes without saying that this is the greatest challenge that most of us, at any age and in any line of work, have ever faced.  The pandemic is crippling our economy, our way of life, our physical and mental health, and our school systems.  When I closed our schools on March 13, 2020, I never anticipated that we would still be facing the same problems nearly six months later.

This virus has required us to completely redesign education, while under incredibly stressful, and oftentimes impossible, conditions, and with few additional resources. This task has been, without question, the most challenging I have ever encountered.  I cannot even begin to say how much I respect and appreciate our staff, faculty, and administration for all their incredible work.  Many have gone for months working six to seven days per week, with no vacation or time away, to ensure that our students have the best possible educational experience under the circumstances.

Their dedication to the children of Hingham and to the community is simply inspiring and I could not be prouder of them.  I am blessed to be working with so many incredibly wonderful people who care so much about the work we do.

What is your favorite thing about Hingham and the HPS so far?

I am still learning about Hingham, but what I love most about the town so far is the people here. They value education and care about our students, staff, and leadership.  They care about their community and they care about each other.   I just so firmly believe that in these troubling times, care, kindness, and compassion are the greatest gifts we can give each other, and this is a giving community.  These people give me hope, which helps me through the most difficult of days.

What has been the biggest challenge during these COVID-19 times?

It is really difficult to articulate the one "biggest" challenge.  I think there have been two that fit into this category: ensuring educational services to our children and supporting our staff.

Ensuring educational services to children:  This is the most important part of our  work, and perhaps the most challenging.  Schools across the nation struggled with the closure and the abrupt shift to remote learning, and few -- if any -- were prepared.

There were challenges ensuring that all children and staff had access to appropriate technology, the Internet, and support and also in serving our most vulnerable children and addressing the social and emotional needs of all of our students.  There were challenges in developing adequate professional development for our staff, which we were required to design almost overnight. Our staff, faculty, and administration are putting in long hours to "build the plane while already flying at 10,000 feet," with no instruction manual or historical road map to follow.

Supporting our staff:  While we were doing all of this work in the spring and summer, our own staff also had to care for their own children and families.  Some of our staff lost loved ones to COVID-19, while others were unable to see their parents, siblings, or children.  Personally, this was one of my greatest personal challenges, because my siblings, children, and grandchildren live in Maine, and I was not able to visit my father who lives in a nursing home there until just two weeks ago.

Despite these challenges, our community expectations are that the "show must go on."  I am proud that we all took that seriously and figured out a way to do the work.  When we closed in the spring, I made a point of sending emails of support and encouragement to our staff each day to let them know that they were not alone and that they were appreciated.  I was told that those emails became a lifeline for some.  The resiliency and perseverance of our staff, faculty, and administration as we all deal with this pandemic together is truly inspiring!

What do you anticipate being the biggest challenge for HPS during this unusual school year?

The unknowns.  What will happen when we open the doors to hundreds of children and staff?  Will people get sick?  Will someone be so ill from COVID-19 that they die?  How will we pay for all this PPE, technology, and needed additional staff?  How can we fit all of our students into classrooms safely?  Will we be able to meet the needs of our children's academic, social, and emotional needs?  Will we have enough staff to get the job done adequately? There is no historical road map to follow or experience to draw on, and that is challenging, but I am confident that we will meet these challenges if we work together and stay focused on the best interests of students and the safety of all.

What are your overall goals for reopening school?

To safely re-establish in-person education and to meet the academic and social/emotional needs of our students.

What factors led to the HPS Recovery Response Advisory Committee's decision to go with the remote/hybrid learning model? Is this still the HPS reopening plan for Sept. 16?

Safety has been the number one factor in all of our decisions.  Thus, we will bring our students and staff back to school in the safest and most responsible manner possible.  The hybrid model, which establishes four cohorts (A,B, A/B, and Remote), was the best way to ensure equitable educational opportunity, while adhering to physical distancing standards that minimized the risk of close contact between students and staff (close contact is defined as less than six feet between persons for at least 15 minutes' total time).

A and B are an equal distribution of about half of the students in each grade. In the hybrid plan, these cohorts will each spend two days in person, either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday, and will participate remotely on the other three days.

Cohort A/B will be a small cohort of students that will attend four or five days per week, depending  on individual needs. Cohort R is the designation for Remote Only students. We believe that the hybrid model maximizes in-person learning while ensuring the safety of our students and staff.

What are the HPS learning goals for students, regardless of which model in which they participate?

That all children achieve a full-year of growth academically, socially, and emotionally, regardless of whether they participate in-person, remotely, or through a combination of the two.

Do you know yet how many students will be participating in the remote/hybrid model and how many will be participating solely in remote learning?

We are still crunching those numbers, but at this point, we anticipate that 8 to 10 percent (about 170 students) of elementary students will be fully remote. The numbers for the middle school and high school are substantially lower.

What role will substitute teachers play this school year?

As with any year, our substitutes play a major role in the education of our students.  This year, they may play a much more substantial role as we need to fill vacancies for those individuals unable to work at this time.

There are so many unique school needs: technology, PPE, etc. What are the biggest financial priorities of the 2020-2021 school year?

The two greatest financial priorities for 2020-2021 are ensuring health and safety (i.e., PPE etc.) and technology.  To date, we have spent more than $350,000 on PPE and more than $1 million dollars on technology for staff and students.  Neither of these expenses were in our original budget, but they are essential for us to be able to offer a safe and high-quality education to our students.

We are requesting reimbursement for those expenses through the Plymouth County CARES Program and are awaiting those funds.

What recommendations do you have for parents to help boost their children's social and emotional well-being while they are having less contact with their peers and teachers?

I defer to parents on this subject as they are the best at determining the needs of their own children.  However, I connect with my own grandchildren via FaceTime many times per week for this very reason. I simply try to support and encourage my grandchildren and I acknowledge their fears and frustrations, but above all else, I try to give them a sense of hope that it will all be okay. The best thing parents can do right now is model how to deal with the unexpected, as this is an extremely important life skill.  As difficult as these circumstances are, I have to believe that we all will learn, grow, and come through this stronger than before.

If Hingham's COVID-19 numbers remain low, within what timeframe is your hope to be able to increase in-person instruction?

I am hoping this is a matter of weeks and not months.  Our Covid Response Team meets weekly to discuss this very issue and monitors conditions closely.  I think it goes without saying that we all want to be back, full-time and in person, as quickly as possible.

Once students are back to school full-time, is there a specific event or tradition you are looking forward to experiencing?

I love to see our children interacting in the classroom, performing on stage, and competing on the athletic fields.  I miss being in the buildings, and can't wait to see them all smiling, learning, and doing all of these wonderful things again!

On average, how many hours have you and the HPS Recovery Response Advisory Committee been putting in each week?

I really don't track my hours.  I can just say that this has been an at least 12 hours per day, 7 days a week job for months on end and I don't see that ending any time soon.  I begin each day at around 5 a.m. and I don't stop responding to emails and calls until late in the evening.  Despite the long hours, I still don’t get to everyone right away, so I do appreciate everyone’s patience.  I do worry about our leadership, staff, and faculty who have been working 12-hour days (or more) for months on end.  I simply hope that the community understands how hard everyone is working for the benefit of the children we serve.

How have negotiations been going with the Hingham Education Association from your perspective?

It is our duty to negotiate changes in working conditions in good faith.  Without a doubt, COVID-19 has drastically changed the working conditions for our staff, and we are at the table doing our best to resolve the myriad of questions and concerns. All parties want to return to the classroom in a safe and responsible manner and are working hard to come to an agreement.

What is your advice for parents as we embark on this very different school year? for students? for teachers?

I ask everyone to remember that we are still in the middle of a pandemic and to temper expectations accordingly.   Please know that we are all working very hard, we care for our students, and we want to be the best at what we do.  We can all learn together, accept constructive criticism, and improve.  Some of the hateful things being said on social media do nothing but cause anger, hopelessness, and discouragement. This pandemic offers a unique opportunity for students, parents, and school staff to work together to find innovative solutions. Please partner with us.

In your wildest dreams, did you ever imagine that this is what your first year with HPS would be like?

Maybe in my wildest nightmare!  But all joking aside, I would not want to be working anywhere else, in any other community, with any other School Committee, with any other town leadership, district leadership, faculty, or staff.  I have forged incredible relationships this year that I will cherish and take with me wherever I go.  Crises can either make you or break you, and I am honored to be part of Higham’s solution to this one.

We can only imagine the stress you have been under since March, when everything changed due to COVID-19 -- what has helped to alleviate this stress for you?

Everyone is under pressure, and stress levels for some are debilitating.  I am concerned about the physical and emotional health of our students, staff, faculty and leadership. It is disheartening to work so hard and have people diminish those efforts with harsh criticism and false assumptions. Now more than ever, we need to support each other with grace, patience, and appreciation. I try to remember that everyone is dealing with their own circumstances and anxiety, and to assume that each person is proceeding with good intentions.  I believe we can rise about all of this and together, we will!  I am heartened by the efforts of our PTOs and the many parents and community members who support our schools. The dedication of our staff and community keeps me going!

What is your outlook for HPS moving forward?

Without a doubt, we will rise above and return stronger and better than ever before.

Is remaining positive part of your philosophy?

My faith, my family, my passion for education and my drive to be the best I can be is what keeps me going every day.  I try to look for opportunities to grow and improve, both personally and for Hingham Public Schools, within each challenge. We must seize this opportunity to see the good in the world.  There is beauty all around us, but we have to open our eyes to see it.

What steps will be taken to ensure that students have a positive experience while learning in new ways?

I have unwavering faith that our staff, faculty and building administration will do everything they can to provide the very best education possible for our students.  Hingham takes great pride in our excellent schools, and I have no doubt we will continue to meet our high standards.

What are you most looking forward to in the new school year?

For the many decades I have been an educator, each year has had its challenges.  In response to concerns year after year, I have said (and I know I heard it from someone else) that "In September, the sun will rise.  The doors to our schools will open, and the sound of children's laughter will fill the halls."  I am most looking forward to hearing the children's laughter in our halls.

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