Supt. Austin: Full in-person reopening of schools not feasible this Fall

HPS classroom set-up to show desks spaced 6ft apart. (HPS photo)
HPS classroom set-up to show desks spaced 6ft apart. (HPS photo)
July 28, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer

Speaking to an audience of some 350 parents, teachers, and other participants, Supt. of Schools Paul Austin provided a "30,000-foot view" school reopening update during a remote School Committee meeting last night. "State guidance is changing daily," he said.

The message was clear: While in-person instruction is most-often considered to be the preferred way for students to learn overall during normal conditions, these are very different times.  Austin confirmed that just yesterday DESE reduced the required student school year to 170 days (from 180 days) providing staff with additional time for planning.  As such, the HPS academic year will now begin on/ around September 15, Austin shared that he will confirm the exact start-date soon.

"Given the current [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education COVID-19] guidance and requirements, the district has determined that a full 'in-person' reopening of schools is not a possible/feasible starting point," Austin said.

The three learning models are in-person, remote, or hybrid learning, which is a combination of the two.

Family survey

The results of a recent school reopening family survey were presented. More than 80 percent -- or 3,433 -- Hingham Public Schools families participated. A second survey is planned.

Of these, 58.7 percent said they were likely to send their kids back to school if the desks were spaced three feet apart, while 78.4 percent said they were likely to do the same with six feet of space between the desks.

"The district is considering a phased-in, hybrid model to begin the school year," Austin said. "We are still working on the details and will have a draft plan by the end of the day on Friday, July 31."

Austin presented the update on behalf of the 100-member Hingham Public Schools Recovery Response Advisory Committee and thanked all involved for their efforts.

Hingham Education Association President June Gustafson read a prepared statement during the public comment period which occurs at the beginning of each School Committee meeting.

She first expressed appreciation for the RRAC's hard work, including those who gave up their summer break.

"Educators are incredibly anxious about returning to school," Gustafson said. "No one plan is ideal, and not everyone will be happy."

Visualizing the new classroom

A major concern, she explained, is the difficulty of visualizing what the classroom experience will actually be like with desks from three to six feet apart, everyone wearing face masks, and teachers interacting with students from the front of the room, six feet away from the first line of desks.

"Students are used to jumping up and down, interacting with each other, and working on group projects," Gustafson said. "Most of that won't be able to happen. All the stakeholders need to understand what that will look and feel like."

Gustafson then requested that the next two School Committee meetings take place in person -- with social distancing in place -- in one of the stripped-down rooms with only desks to allow the most classroom possible. "This would give everyone an idea of what to expect if the schools reopen, and it would need to be televised," she said.

Committee Chair Kerry Ni said Gustafson's idea will be considered, "but we have to take into account public participation [in Committee meetings]."

Former Chair Michelle Ayer delivered a strong message. "I don't think it's too dramatic to say that the decisions being made are literally life and death decisions. No one ever expected this," she said. "If we go back to school too soon we could be putting the kids and teachers in harm's way, and I'm not willing to take that gamble."

Support for students

Ayer emphasized the importance of being understanding and supportive of students of all ages as they re-enter the upcoming very-different school year. "Socializing, giggling, sharing, playing, and eating lunch together -- that won't be happening," she said. That said, "The kids will get the learning somehow, and we're asking for the community's patience, and support for all the work being done to provide the best education possible while ensuring the physical, social, and emotional health of students and staff."

Ayer suggested parents and educators contact their local legislators to advocate for COVID-19 school funding, similar to assistance granted to some businesses.

Preliminary reopening plans must be submitted to the state by July 31, and the district's final plan for reopening by Aug. 10 -- which will include updated DESE guidance and requires School Committee approval.

That said, Austin emphasized that all plans are subject to change because of the continuously-changing state guidance.

He said he reads all of the many emails he receives on a regular basis. "We know this is a tough situation, and there's not anyone in the school system who doesn't want students back in school, but we need to balance safety with the education they so desperately need," Austin said.

Phased-in approach

Under the "Learn from Anywhere Model," the district is working on an instructional core that is designed as a progressive, "phased-in" approach to full in-person learning and, if needed, allows cohorts/grade levels/schools "to make progressive movements backward, as health data warrants, through a phased-in reentry [plan] that best ensures the health and safety of faculty, staff, students, and families."

This model is meant to ensure that all students have access to a rigorous HPS curriculum and the ability "to pivot effectively between learning models as local health data dictates," Austin said. "We need to be flexible."

A differentiated approach will accommodate the academic and social-emotional needs of K-5, 6-8, and 9-12 students.

"We're working with educators and specialists around the clock to provide an engaging and enriching learning experience for all of our learners in the best way possible," Austin said, referring to the overall reopening plan.

In response to a question from the audience, Austin said school administrators are working with METCO families to determine their needs and to "ensure they have everything they need."

Working parents

A parent who said she was an essential worker thinks special consideration should be given to working parents. "Our kids need to be back in school, wearing masks and having fun," she said. "You can do what you need to do wearing a mask."

In response, Austin said, "I do understand we need [to find a way] to provide wrap-around services so parents can work."

A HPS employee asked whether "we will all have jobs" when the new school year starts. While Austin could not make any promises, he said there are currently no plans for layoffs. "We have to bring the students back first," he said. "There will be more information later."

HPS teacher Ben Louchheim encouraged those working on the reopening plan to "come up with formal language" on how to deal with students or staff members "who choose not to wear a mask for other than health reasons."

In the meantime, Committee member Liza O'Reilly encouraged parents to model wearing face masks "all the time and to find ones that are comfortable for your children to wear -- you can sew them or buy them -- there are many styles."

The full July 27 school committee meeting can be viewed by clicking here thanks to Harbor Media.


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