The back to school 2020-2021 plan recommended by Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson at Monday’s meeting of the Old Rochester Regional School Committee is subject to change, Nelson said, not only because state guidelines can change at a moment’s notice, but because the school district itself intends to continue monitoring the situation as the academic year progresses.
“I am recommending the hybrid learning model… a consistent system-wide approach… (we are) actively working on specifics,” said Nelson who, sitting in his fourth school-committee meeting in the last few business days, was happy to tell the ORR School Committee that the 2020-21 plan has been supported and adopted by the three elementary schools. The intention is “to be as consistent as possible for predictability to families.”
In short, the hybrid plan will have 50 percent of students at school and 50 percent engaged in remote learning. “Hybrid-in” is scheduled for two days per week and “hybrid-out” for three days; the odd out day in the plan is designed to allow planning time for teachers and administrators.
Families can choose remote-learning only for their children, but there will be a noticeable difference in remote learning between the 2019-20 spring semester and the 2020-21 fall semester.
“Remote learning and hybrid-out days will be more robust compared to spring,” said Nelson.
“We’re learning from our spring learning experience,” said High School Principal Mike Devoll. “The big backpacks are back in our hybrid plan because we don’t want kids at lockers. There will be a priority on relationships and seeing kids and face-time… We don’t want to lose that kid.”
Alluding to the lingering challenges of the hastily organized spring semester of remote learning, Devoll discussed a new academic student life that will prioritize attention. “Within a 75-minute class, the last 15 minutes could be home check-in, whether it’s for support – definitely attendance – there will be no homerooms or lockers,” he said.
Junior High Principal Silas Coellner said “hybrid-out” students may be in contact with their teacher up to six times a day.
The Junior High will start its “hybrid-out” days with asynchronous learning to give teachers preparation time and begin synchronous learning at 9:30 am with a structure including an advisory, then 10 to 30-minute synchronous lessons, followed by a break and then a check-back-in.
Sippican School Principal Marla Sirois explained that elementary-school students will be given fresh-air opportunities with mask breaks.
“We’re looking for a full day of student engagement and activity,” said Sirois, extending Sippican’s intentions even to families that choose not to send their children back for hybrid participation.
While at school buildings, students will wear masks and be socially distanced in the classrooms and hallways (via a 15-minute break in between classes to avoid the mad rush). Hygiene will be prioritized. There will be plexiglass barriers in offices, and the school nurse will wear a lab coat.
Ventilation was of major concern in responses from the school committee and faculty attending Monday’s Zoom meeting, and Nelson said he will seriously consider all recommendations, one of which was not to use any room without windows.
Several School Committee members questioned Nelson on specifics in regards to safety concerns, and Dr. Colin Everett spoke about health and safety benchmarks that he categorized in three groups: in process, completed, and needing a plan.
Everett’s questions included at what point might ORR need to shift from hybrid to remote only or even close school or return to full in-person attendance.
Alluding to School Committee member Frances Kearns’ question about personal protective equipment, Everett alluded to exhausting HVAC technical reports, consultants, temperature fluctuations, mold and humidity issues. He sought “a real clear guideline” on what kind of mask is needed, where to obtain it, and what happens if a student needs a mask or breaks a mask.
Everett said a dozen classrooms and offices have no windows, while almost every reference to ventilation in the 49-page return-to-school report assumes windows. DESE, said Everett, recommends an isolation room and discussed potential usage of the separate entrance used by ORCTV.
Randy Allain, an English teacher at ORR High School, also questioned the quality of masks that may be brought to school.
Everett noted a significant improvement at the metered, hand-washing sinks that have increased their water output from a few seconds to 20 seconds. The trough sinks encourage sharing, posing a potential safety compromise. Students used the bathroom at the same time, and Everett asked about the possibility of modifying water bubblers into additional handwashing stations.
Nelson talked about the CARES Act, in which non-budgeted, COVID-related expenditures can be reimbursed to communities. Nelson also noted an allocation grant of $160,000 that ORR received and a summer grant that will give each district in the tri-towns a maximum of $12,000.
After discussion among the School Committee members, the floor was opened to community members attending the Zoom.
Marion resident Chris Welsh said he was never contacted nor received any information about surveys that went out from the school district, and he questioned the integrity of the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the remote learning in the spring was “a total failure for the elementary students due to immaturity” and that he and his wife work full-time. “We didn’t have much success.”
“In-person is what we all want. How to get there is the question,” said Nelson, alluding to his ongoing work with the Mattapoisett Board of Health, consulting with school physicians, etc. “The main limitations are social distancing of 3 to 6 feet and how many students can we get on a bus at one time.”
Tri-Town resident Kimberly Ward said she is “concerned about the lack of communication with students” and noticed the lack of a suicide-prevention hotline number. “If you’re not having mental-health issues right now, you’re not paying attention,” she told the meeting, alluding to stress over a multi-generational household and the risk that return to school puts on her mother.
Nelson agreed with Ward’s sentiment and stressed the social-emotional support offered by the school during the spring, contacts that were made, and will be renewed “because I think those are very important,” he said. “All of this feedback is extremely important to me. The planning does not stop.”
The planning that began on March 13 culminated on August 6 with responses to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s request for three return-to-school models: in-person, hybrid, and remote only.
Because of the stress on families and, indirectly, the economy, individual districts were told to prioritize their in-person models. But citing the obvious compromises to student and, by extension, community safety amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic including but not limited to social distancing in buses, classrooms, and in hallways, the hybrid model was chosen for the start of school.
Nelson told the School Committee that the choice is “ongoing, always subject to change based on new (state) guidance and (internal) recommendation… subject to successful bargaining with the associations (unions)… There is no blueprint for navigating a global pandemic.”
Nelson planned in Wednesday’s meeting of the Joint School Committee to propose a reduction in the academic calendar from 180 to 170 days of school, the 10 days to be dedicated to planning and training on COVID-19 readiness, remote and hybrid learning, connecting with families, and department planning. School Committee member Heather Burke suggested that the February vacation “may not make sense in the new world.”
Moments after Nelson took the floor upon Chairperson Cary Humphrey’s call to order, he relayed the floor to Devoll, who announced the loss of “a former beloved member” of the ORR Class of 2018, Sam Ellis, who had passed away over the weekend. “Sam had quite a charm to him,” said Devoll, who led the school committee in a moment of silence.
The Joint School Committee was to meet on Wednesday to discuss and vote on the 2020-21 academic calendar.
ORR School Committee
By Mick Colageo