School Committee round-up:  no COVID-19 spike following spring vacation; education commissioner puts end to hybrid learning

Hingham Middle School (photo by Joshua Ross Photography)

May 11, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer

Supt. of Schools Paul Austin delivered the good news that the anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases following the spring break did not occur.

He went on to express appreciation for the students and teachers who participated in COVID-19 testing during the last days of school vacation.

In response to the declining numbers of COVID-19 cases, Austin said he wouldn't be surprised if Hingham were to move into the COVID-19 "green" zone soon after being in the moderate-risk "yellow" zone for more than four months.

School Committee Chair Kerry Ni noted that vaccinations are now available to individuals 16 and over and encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated.

Austin's remarks during last night's remote School Committee meeting came on the heels of Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley calling for an end to hybrid learning for all high school students, effective no later than May 17.

"As of that date, all students in elementary, middle, and high school will attend school full-time," Austin said.  This brings an end to allowing high school students to access their classes and directed studies remotely.

Parents were informed via an email from Principal Rick Swanson explaining a change to the high school schedule that will begin on May 17 -- all blocks will be expanded to 90 minutes each. A 15-minute snack break has been added between blocks 2 and 3.

HHS will remain in a four-block schedule for the remainder of the school year, with lunch and directed study occurring in block 4 each day.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education defines "directed study" as requiring students to be engaged in activities directly related to their program of studies, and a teacher must be available to assist students with any questions they may have.

A directed study may occur in places such as a classroom, computer lab, or resource room. Traditional (non-directed) study halls are not considered "directed study.“

"There has been a lot of pivoting and frustrating schedule changes for students and parents, but it's back to school full-time next Monday for the remainder of the school year," Austin said.

Parent Kirsten Moore expressed concern about the change to 90-minute blocks, which she thinks are too long. While a licensed teacher is expected to be present during directed studies, she wonders how effective that will be if a French teacher, for example, is on duty when her daughter -- who does not take French -- has questions about another subject.

"What kind of help would she get?" Moore asked. "This school year will end thankfully sooner rather than later."

She also took issue with some lunch periods being scheduled at 2 p.m. (due to social distancing and other requirements). "There are two things that students need the most -- a good night's sleep and food. How will they stay alert and open to learning when they haven't eaten for six hours? This is very disappointing."

Swanson explained that there will be snack breaks and possibly an opportunity for students to have something to eat during mask breaks.

"After May 17 there will only be 21 days left in the school year, and while this has been a year of tremendous chaos and change for us all and this learning model isn't perfect, we would like to finish this school year in the best way possible," Swanson said.

He went on to ask for support from the school community in accomplishing this  goal. "The last days of school will not be a loss," Swanson said.

In other business at the meeting, Austin and Ni thanked Town Meeting voters for their unanimous support last Saturday for the school budget -- which includes recovery funding related to addressing learning gaps resulting from the effects of the pandemic on students.

In other school news, Swanson shared some of the details of planned end-of-year senior activities, with more information available soon.

These include a car parade next Saturday to celebrate the Class of 2021, a graduation ceremony June 5 that under new state guidance will allow graduates to have more guests than they could last year; an outdoor Memory Walk; Awards Night, June 1; and a night of fun "under the lights" to replace the traditional prom.

Elementary and middle school administrators will provide information about the end-of-year activities planned at the elementary and middle school levels at the next Committee meeting.

"There's a lot to look forward to on top of all the stress and strain we've all experienced," Swanson said.

In other business, Jen Benham was appointed to serve as the School Committee member of the HPS Reopening Committee, which "while expecting a full reopening," will make recommendations about potential scenarios for reopening the schools next fall school anything change in the meantime, according to Austin. The first two meeting are scheduled for May 12 and 19. Austin will report back to the School Committee at its next meeting.

Principal Derek Smith presented the Hingham Middle School School Council Report, which contained a photo of 1,000 plastic bags of locker contents bearing students' names from about a year ago when the schools were forced to close due to the pandemic.

"It's back to business now, with students participating in robust activities," he said.  Student civics project topics included improving traffic flow at HMS during dismissal; expanding outdoor educational spaces at HMS; and supporting the Hingham Food Pantry.

Proposed goals for the 2021-2022 school year include introducing and implementing restorative justice practices at HMS; expanding and implementing support programs in the areas of math and literacy for students; bolstering the core value of promoting better understanding among diverse people; nurturing the social-emotional development of all students; and providing interventions to foster social and academic success.

Swanson presented HHS's School Council Report, with the main goal being to move the school closer to reaching its full potential.

"We thought the fire [that occurred in May 2019] was the biggest challenge our school would ever face," he said.  "Little did we know what was coming. We have learned something about challenges since the last time I presented our goals."

Current ones include working toward a greater sense of safety for all members of the school community; "meaning what we say and proving it through actions"; expanding the highly-successful Unified Sports Program that brings regular and special education students together for fun competition; bolstering the cultural proficiency of HHS students and staff; and strengthening the school's commitment to, and practice of, environmental stewardship as a core value.

Accomplishments include the freshman mentoring program, a variety of successful clubs, international service trips, new strides toward sustainability, and the HHS Unity Project, which promotes respect, inclusion, safety, and equity.

The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for Monday, May 24.

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