Supt. Austin calls for school community to pull together

school bus
January 26, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer (photo courtesy of Unsplash)

At last night's remote school committee meeting, Supt. of Schools Paul Austin talked about the importance of the community and Hingham Public Schools staff working together cooperatively.  "In order to do the best by our students, we need to have all of our oars in the water pulling in the same direction. I know we can do this," he said.

This comment was part of Austin's remarks in response to the overwhelming number of emails he receives from parents and others with an interest in the HPS. "I try to respond to the majority of them, but if [parents] want me to bring students [back to in-person learning], I can't continue to answer emails eight hours a day."

Concerns expressed in correspondence to Austin include what some parents say is a lack of communication from school administrators in sharing their plans for the schools and the amount of student learning time that's occurring during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Some may not like our plans, but they have been communicated," Austin said. Additional information is posted on the HPS website.

Austin said he was taking more time last night than usual to address concerns expressed in emails to help achieve "transparency and unity in the district."

He noted that "our teachers and support staff have come to school every day except when Plymouth River School was closed due to a COVID cluster. Our schools have remained open since we started the hybrid [combination of in-person and remote learning] model. The safety protocols we have in place have been paramount to keeping our schools operating."

Austin said he hears parents' frustration, anger, and concern and understands the need to hold someone responsible -- "and I take that responsibility."

That said, the "vitriol and negative comments" expressed in some of the emails to HPS staff, the school committee, and others "continue to distract the efforts of our administrators, divide the community, and lower morale."

With regard to student learning time concerns, Austin noted that the HPS district was deemed by the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education to exceed the required SLT in the hybrid learning model.

Under state emergency regulations adopted in December,  schools operating under that model are required to provide at least an average of 35 hours of "live instruction" over a 10-school day period across all grades, not including passing in the hallways or lunch time. The state's definition of "live instruction" relates to either in-person or synchronous (students engaging in learning at the same time) remote instruction hours.

Asst. Supt. of Schools Jamie LaBillois presented a report on the district's recent submission of the required student learning time survey to the state.

He displayed a letter indicating that the HPS "had been cleared . . . with an average of 38 hours . . . We are in regulatory compliance with [the state's Student Learning Time expectations]."

That said, LaBillois continued, "We do have some areas where we saw some lessons learned from of the survey, which will inform next steps."

He went on to explain that school administrators found some inconsistencies when responding to the survey. "We are currently working right now to prepare to ensure that all of our schedules meet the student learning time expectations, and we will be preparing [to complete] another survey about where we are in January 2021."

All six principals were on the line to share their thoughts about their individual schools, including students' schedules. "We're all in this together," said South School Supt. Mary Eastwood.

School committee member Michelle Ayer found the presentation "helpful and enlightening. Those schedules are both, I think, a Herculean task for not only the educators who put them together but also the parents who are managing them at their homes. I appreciate how much that is a change from the normal way of doing things, and how people are managing through that -- both in the school buildings and at home."

The full meeting will be available on the Harbor Media YouTube channel.

During the public comment period, parent Wendy Driscoll spoke in support of further expanding in-person learning opportunities for students, noting that a number of other communities are doing this. "We continue to remain behind," she said.  "We have the vaccine coming, and many parents are calling for a return-to-school plan. According to science, transmission of COVID-19 in schools is rare. We're all on the same side, and we can do this. The time to act is now."

Austin also shared the recent HPS COVID-19 data, noting that "we're still not seeing any evidence of spread in the schools. I believe the safety protocols HPS has in place have really helped to keep us moving forward." (Check the HPS website for school-related COVID-19 statistics.)

Free COVID-19 pool testing for students and staff could begin as soon as early February. Parental permission is necessary and the testing is not mandatory, according to Austin. The idea behind pool testing is that a large number of people are tested at one time, providing assessment data within a short timeframe.

In other business at the meeting, Austin noted that Fiscal Year 2022 school budget proposal discussions are ongoing. "We're at a 10.27 percent increase [over the Fiscal 2021 budget] right now," he said. Additional budget meetings will be held leading up to the planned Spring Town Meeting.


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