School Officials Eye January Full-time Return for K-2; Considering Weymouth Site as Foster School Satellite Location

school bus
October 20, 2020 by Hilary Jenison and Carol Britton Meyer

Supt. of Schools Paul Austin presented important news at last night's School Committee meeting -- school officials are eyeing a return to full-time, in-person school for grades K-2 beginning in January.  Additionally, they are currently negotiating with St. Jerome's in neighboring Weymouth as a potential satellite Foster School location due to space issues there.

For instance, eight of the Foster classrooms cannot be used because they don't have proper ventilation.

Time is of the essence in deciding whether to make arrangements to use the available space at St. Jerome's. Following a discussion about the merits, the School Committee supported the move. More details will be available at a later date.

Hingham Public Schools (HPS) Director of Business and Support Services John Ferris said the building is in "great shape," with new windows, sizeable classrooms, and suitable break-out spaces for different uses that could include gym.

Necessary work to occupy the space includes moving some furniture there from the HPS, doing some painting, cleaning the space, and connecting the building with HPS technology.

The costs associated with such a move, including staffing, have not yet been identified, but Ferris said the figure would be "sizeable."

Phase 3 Reopening news

Austin said enrollments have stabilized, with a few students returning to in-person schooling, along with a few requests for students to participate in the HPS remote learning program or to be homeschooled.

Hingham remains in the high-risk COVID-19 "red" zone, which is not a surprise since the number of cases has been on the rise since Sept. 9, according to Austin.

Since the reopening of school in mid-September, the number of COVID-19 cases among school community members has climbed to 10, including adults and children, out of a population of about 4,500 students.

Austin is working with the Board of Health on an ongoing basis to monitor and identify trends related to where the transmissions are coming from.

All eyes are on the three-week trend to determine next steps and to analyze the data.  Three weeks in the "red" zone does not mean the HPS learning model will go fully remote, according to Austin, but they are closely monitoring the data.  Supt. Austin also clarified that if there are trends at any time, regardless of the color zone Hingham is in, the call can be made for one or more schools to go fully remote if a particular population is at risk.

Phase 3 update

Looking toward Phase 3 of the reopening plan, key variables for returning to school full-time include addressing transportation issues (current capacity has been greatly reduced due to COVID-19 restrictions), space issues and staffing.

Regarding transportation, possible solutions include renting seven additional buses and seven additional drivers at a cost of about $300,000; adjusting school policy to increase the mileage requirement to qualify to ride the bus from 1 to 1.5 miles, which Austin said would solve the transportation issue, or staggering school start times.

After discussion and a recommendation from Supt Austin, the School Committee voted to support a change in policy to adjust the mileage from 1 mile to up-to 1.5 miles for families to qualify to ride the bus for this school year. The transportation issue will be continued to be explored by the administration, with special consideration for families impacted by major intersections including 3A. Austin confirmed a parent survey will be shared in the near future to determine if and how parents are willing to help solve for the transportation issues.

Another major concern is that HPS does not have enough space to accommodate all students at all grade levels to return to school full-time with the required DESE physical distancing in place.  As an example, the middle and high schools do not have enough space even with three, rather than six, feet of social distancing.

There's a focus on grades K through 2 right now, with a targeted Jan. 4 return to in-person learning depending on the health metrics at that time.  Once those grades are operational, next steps will be determined for grades 3 through 5 as well as the Hingham Middle School and Hingham High School students, which will remain in the hybrid learning model (combination of in-person and remote learning) until a plan is determined.

Asst. Supt. of Schools Jamie LaBillois confirmed that the targeted Phase 3 start date for the middle and high schools will be later than Jan. 4.

When pressed why we need to wait until January to increase in-person learning for our youngest learners, Supt. Austin confirmed they need to continue to solve for required  transportation for all students, they need to negotiate and prepare St. Jerome’s to be ready to accommodate our students and they need to hire and train new staff.  Additionally, Austin mentioned that parts of the recently negotiated Memorandum of Agreement between the School Committee and the Hingham Education Association will need to be renegotiated to reflect the full in-person learning updates.

Student report

In the meantime, Hingham High School student School Committee liaison Carly Kennedy, reports that remote learning is going a lot smoother than she thought it would. "The teachers have done a great job accommodating students after school hours," she said, noting that in her opinion, group work can be challenging in person but is effective on Zoom.

In other updates, Carly was pleased to announce that the drama club, orchestra, band, and chorus are all practicing and performing on Zoom; the Green Team has been focusing on guest speakers; and that the student council is brainstorming about new ways to fundraise.

In terms of sports, Kennedy confirmed that masks are not stopping student athletes and that they are moving forward with playing their sports, according to Carly. "It's been challenging, but everyone has been adjusting and grateful to be able to play!" she said.

In other business

Supt. Austin received the green light from the School Committee to utilize remote learning days rather than emergency snow days for the 2020-2021 school year. This is good news, because snow days ultimately add to the length of the school year when they are called following a significant snowstorm, whereas remote learning days are counted as time in learning.

Some parents expressed concerns over the slower return for grades 3-12 as well as lack of communication and transparency from the administration.  "There's huge wave of frustration for everyone right now but we are working extremely hard to find solutions for our students and staff," confirmed Austin.

On a related subject, there two upcoming "coffee” chats with Austin on Thursday, Nov. 6 and Friday, Nov. 12 (details and Zoom link are listed on the Anchor calendar). School Committee member Libby Lewiecki urged those participating in these meetings to be careful with their words, noting that the administration is working under extremely stressful situations and asked attendees to keep their questions and attitude positive.

Austin thanked the Hingham Public Schools staff, parents, and students for their "incredible effort as we move forward during these unprecedented times."

He also expressed appreciation to School Committee members Michelle Ayer and Liza O'Reilly for creating a FAQ document to help answer school-related questions from the community which is available on the HPS’ new website.

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