February 6, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
During an animated virtual coffee hour with Supt. of Schools Paul Austin Thursday night -- which attracted nearly 380 participants -- the continuing question voiced by frustrated parents was when will students be able to return to in-person learning full-time.
Concerns were also expressed about COVID-19 pool testing, negotiations with the Hingham Education Association (teachers' union), and other issues.
The meeting was hosted by the community outreach subcommittee of the school committee, with all school committee members participating.
Austin believes that pool testing is a key factor in helping to get students back to in-person learning and started off with comments about this new testing program, noting the large number of social media posts about the subject. "Clearly my intention is to do the very best I can to protect all of our students, staff, and everyone involved in the Hingham Public Schools," he said.
The idea behind pool testing is that a large number of people are tested at one time, providing assessment data within a short timeframe.
Optional pool testing for students will begin Monday, Feb. 22. Parental consent is needed for children to be part of this regular testing.
According to Austin, 500 members of the school community other than children have already participated in pool testing. "There have been hundreds of tests administered to teachers, and there has only been one positive case."
Austin referred parents to the pool testing FAQs email sent to families on Thursday detailing the process. "Pool testing will help get us to a point where it will be safe to be back at school. People have to feel confident in doing that," he said.
Stephanie Purtell objects to pool testing for students who are not back to school full-time. "They have been through a lot, a lot, and are suffering from anxiety and depression [from not being in school]," she said.
She noted that her children have expressed concerns about being tested when still in the hybrid model (combination of in-person and remote). "They would be willing to be tested once they are back in school full-time. Our kids have already done a lot to avoid spreading the virus and have gotten nothing."
Regarding another aspect of the school reopening issue, Sarah Sigovitch asked what it would take for the union to set aside the requirement included in the current Memorandum of Agreement stating that before there can be a full return to in-person learning, the town would need to be in either the "gray" or "green" COVID-19 zone for a minimum of three weeks, with no evidence of school-based transmission. Hingham is now in the medium-risk "yellow" category.
"What can be done to remove that [requirement] from the contract, to change that decision?" she asked.
"I'm not a union rep, and I'm not sure what it would take, but we agreed as a group to sit down every two weeks [or more often] to discuss these issues," Austin responded. "We will continue to talk and work through them to get the kids back to school as quickly as possible, which we all want to do."
'It's safe to reopen schools'
Infectious disease specialist David DelSesto, D.O., a Hingham resident, noted that the new head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, said "it's safe to reopen schools. There's been an abundance of data in the past two weeks that shows that teachers don't need to be vaccinated for schools to reopen, and that if mitigating measures are in place -- which the Hingham Public Schools [already have] -- schools can reopen safely."
In response, Austin said school officials and the HEA will be "going back to the table again and will continue to talk about [these issues]. What's in place is not a done deal and is subject to amendment when we look at the new data."
Heather Chisholm said parents are looking for straight answers. For instance, "Will our middle and high school students be going back before the end of the school year?" she asked.
Austin said he wants that to happen. "I know people have been very patient and want to see more [progress being made]. I feel the pressure. There's nothing I want more. That's another reason for pool testing -- to make another tool available to us."
Another parent asked if school staff could be surveyed regarding their thoughts and feelings about returning to school.
To do that, though, would require the HEA's consent, Austin said.
Wendy Driscoll, who spoke at the beginning of the meeting, summed up her thoughts after the meeting for the Hingham Anchor.
"The community is looking for progress on an 'attainable plan' -- one with no color code requirement [referring to the 'grey' and 'green' zone part of the MOA], with target dates for all grades at three-feet distancing," she said. "The community is begging the administration and the school committee for this, and doing so would really help to meet parents' expectations. People are frustrated to see so many other communities moving forward to bring in elementary students full-time, with tentative dates for the upper grades."
Driscoll noted that Hanover, Duxbury, Cohasset, Abington, and Cambridge have/are moving to three- to six-feet of social distancing for in-person schooling. "Others have been creative in finding space," she said. "We need to follow suit now that vaccinations are available and science has shown that the schools are safe."
Another parent asked if now, seven months before the start of school next September, consideration is being given to "an aggressive hiring effort to bring teachers into our town who want to teach in-person, so we will be prepared next fall."
Austin emphasized that "everyone is feeling the pressure and wants to find a way through this." He also noted that there are a number of open positions and that "there will be a rigorous hiring process to get the best teachers here [in Hingham]."
Julie Donovan said she has "lost track of whose decision it is to bring students back full-time." Austin confirmed that school officials and the HEA negotiate those terms.
'The community has always loved our teachers'
James Oppedisano said he feels as if there is a "disconnect" when people talk about the union and the teachers -- "as if they were completely separate."
"These are the teachers students love, who at the end of the year are happy to receive gift cards or a flower [that show students' appreciation for them]."
The community has "always loved our teachers, and there's no separation -- they are represented by the HEA," Austin confirmed.
At the end of the meeting, a number of parents called out, "We need more time!" and asked if Austin could remain on the line. However, a one-hour timeframe had already been set at the beginning of the meeting.
School committee member Michelle Ayer thanked everyone for participating but explained, "We need time for our own families and our jobs," and encouraged parents and others to participate in school committee, school committee office hours, and other school-related meetings. Parents can also reach out to their children's teachers or school principal with any concerns.
After the meeting, School Committee Chair Kerry Ni told the Hingham Anchor when asked to comment, "The meeting [Thursday] night was hard. For everyone. The School Committee has asked for public feedback through our meetings, coffees with the Superintendent, office hours, PTO meetings, email, and many other ways. We hosted 5-1/2 hours of meetings with parents last week alone. We don't have all of the answers as we live through history, so can't overstate the importance of tapping into the considerable talent in our community."
Austin told the Hingham Anchor following the meeting, "I do hear parents' frustration and share with them the desire to get our kids back into school in the safest manner possible. We're aware that conditions are changing, such as the availability of the vaccine on the horizon. We're working on a plan collaboratively with the HEA and hope to be able to share [an update] very soon."
The next remote school committee meeting is Monday, Feb. 8, at 7 p.m. The date for the next superintendent's coffee has not yet been decided.