August 6, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
The School Committee is on the same page as the 100-member Recovery Response Advisory Committee, which both support a phased-in remote/hybrid learning plan to start off the new school year.
Many parents, teachers, and others interested in hearing the details of the Hingham Public Schools' 68-page initial draft of the 2020-2021 school reopening plan listened intently to the presentation during tonight’s 2-1/2-hour remote School Committee meeting.
Members of Hingham Parents for Full-Time School held a Rally for Education today, at 5 p.m. at the front of Town Hall, just prior to the meeting.
Of the three learning models -- in-person, remote, and hybrid (a combination of the two) -- a phased-in remote/hybrid "Learn from Anywhere" plan -- with the same instruction for all three options -- was RRAC's recommended option to start off the school year, due to safety and health concerns related to COVID-19. Families have the option to choose the fully-remote model.
Each school district's final reopening plan is due to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Aug. 10. The first day of school is expected to be Sept. 16.
"We'd all like to return to the classroom, but people are fearful that another [COVID-19] spike might happen -- we hope it does not," said Supt. of Schools Paul Austin. "The over-arching question becomes, How do we safely serve as many students as possible?"
Unanimous School Committee support
After listening to Austin's presentation, asking questions, and hearing comments from several parents, the School Committee voted unanimously to support the RRAC's recommendation, with the understanding that the plan is subject to change based on updated health data, new DESE guidance, and other factors.
School Committee Chair Kerry Ni thanked all those who have engaged in the reopening process, noting that the RRAC's vote of support for that model "is rooted in the best interests of our community.
"Hingham, like other communities, is being asked to redesign education over a few months without additional resources. This year will not be easy, but we have a committed and dedicated leadership team in place, and I know we can all rise to the challenge. We have to. Our children are depending on us."
At the same time, Ni said she considers this an opportunity. "We're moving toward a robust technology out of necessity and focusing on our most vulnerable learners -- which is a good thing," she said. "We're also working toward a more personalized learning. Every student has different needs."
Ni emphasized the importance of parents, staff, and the entire community working together. "There has been a lot of angst around this issue, and we need to give each other space, and have patience, to get where we need to be for our students."
Under the phased-in remote/hybrid plan, student instruction alternates between in-person and remote by half weeks (attending school -- with social distancing and other protocols in place -- on either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday), with remote instruction on Wednesdays and any days students are not participating in in-person learning.
'Robust remote plan'
This phased-in approach is designed "to progressively ramp-up live, in-person instruction, prioritizing the youngest and most vulnerable students." To best support students who will be participating in some portion of their learning remotely, the RRAC is actively working to develop a "substantial, synchronous and robust remote learning plan" that also supports a potential full school closure due to increased health and safety concerns.
The ultimate goal is a full return to in-person education as soon as it is safe to do so. However, as stated in the draft, the RRAC has come to the conclusion that "to begin the school year with a full return to school is simply not in the best interest of our students, faculty, and staff at this time. Furthermore, the results of our feasibility study indicated that our current levels of space and staffing simply do not allow for a full return at the three-foot minimum spacing mandated by DESE."
Parent Megan Buhr said some parents who don't feel comfortable with "this much screentime for their kids" are considering homeschooling.
Another parent asked if the arts curriculum and the band program will continue under the hybrid model.
Asst. Supt. of Schools Jamie LaBillois said the intention has always been to "preserve our curriculum, including the arts, but that social distancing is an issue."
A meeting about this subject is scheduled for the week of Aug. 17. "We're trying to determine what physical space might be needed to run these programs live within the hybrid model," he said. "DESE recommends remote programs, but that's not our idea of ideal."
One possibility in good weather, LaBillois said, is to hold band practice outside, with 10 feet of social distancing.
Safe partial reopening possible
Although the RRAC realizes that not fully returning to school as “normal” may not please all parents, its members believe that -- with the progress made by the Commonwealth over the past several months in flattening the curve of COVID-19 -- a safe partial reopening of the Hingham public Schools this fall is possible.
Because students and staff have not been in the school environment for several months, the first phase of the plan is considered to be critical in laying the foundation for a successful return to school -- with a focus on building relationships with their teachers, a gradual re-acclimation to the school environment, student orientation and assessment, student training on safety protocols, and social-emotional learning activities.
Special education students will be provided with an individualized schedule reflecting the full spectrum of services delineated in each student’s Individualized Education Program, with in-person services provided as much as possible.
The issue of how to support families with two working parents or essential workers was broached. Austin called this "a community problem" and said he will be talking with Town Administrator Tom Mayo about it.
School Committee members Michelle Ayer said there are "folks in town trying to find a solution. Some parents don't have the luxury of being able to work from home or don't have flexible schedules. It's an extremely stressful situation, and we really are working to get this done."
Ayer also said she has faith in HPS teachers. "I don't know how they will be able to do it -- how they will take this really lousy experience and conjure up joy and hope for our kids, regardless of how learning is delivered."
She believes starting with the hybrid model is a good way to go. "The entire community and not just our teachers and students are relying on us to be safe and mindful of this public health crisis," Ayer said.
School Committee member Liza O'Reilly prefers the hybrid plan because it includes in-person learning and a robust remote plan. "We're looking at whole child education, not just focusing on MCAS subjects," she said. "Our wide offerings are our strength."
She also noted that "students at all levels are craving social interaction, and if we can do it safely, I think we should try."
Fellow member Jen Benham offered, "We will all have to adapt to this new way of learning and will need to work together."
'It's a matter of safety'
Member Carlos Da Silva feels "it's a matter of safety for all our staff, from custodians to teachers, to students. I've lost many nights' sleep looking at emails," he said.
School Committee member Nes Correnti expressed concern about comments made about some of the leadership team by members of the community. "The vitriol that has been thrown out is unacceptable," she said. "This is a pandemic, and there are no perfect answers. We need to get through this together."
An animated Libby Lewiecki, a member of the School Committee, said that teachers should be considered essential workers, "but society isn't treating them as such. We should shower them with resources and have signs with red apples and hearts [on our lawns] to support them," she said.