The School Committee on Thursday, Aug. 6 unanimously approved a hybrid reopening plan “for the students who decide to come to school” in Whitman-Hanson.
The first day of school was also pushed back to Tuesday, Sept. 15. The school year has been trimmed to 170 days, with snow days becoming remote learning days.
School officials recommended a hybrid model, because there would not be adequate funding for a fully in-person model under current pandemic requirements.
Social-emotional learning is also more feasible in a hybrid plan than with remote learning alone.
“Parents, if they are not comfortable at any point, can take their students out of school and take our remote learning option,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jeffrey Szymaniak said. “Whatever we put out today, we could pivot — because of an uptick locally, or an uptick in the Commonwealth of the virus.”
While the meeting was held in person at the high school library, a public audience was not possible due to continuing state limitations on crowd size at public gatherings. The public was asked to email any questions to the meeting via firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our reopening plan is going to take some time,” said Szymaniak, noting there is a backlog on orders for Chromebooks across the country due to delays with U.S. Customs because of some companies’ potential child labor issues. “The overarching concept is to make sure our schools are safe for both our staff and our students.”
He said the district puts students’ physical and social-emotional health and academic well-being in the forefront.
Szymaniak presented options for remote hybrid and in-person learning options to the committee for consideration.
“Teaching and learning takes precedence over this,” he said. Procedures for the main office and transitioning to passing between classrooms in the hallways must also be developed as well as for eating and drinking water and mask breaks.
Health rooms and areas where students might have to quarantine are also being planed.
“Our classrooms are going to be very different from anything we’ve seen in the 21st Century,” Szymaniak said, noting the library tables set up in rows for the committee in a way replicated what those classrooms would look like. He kept his mask on while speaking to demonstrate what teachers must be doing when speaking in class.
The district is recommending those desks be spaced six feet apart, which permits about 15 desks per room. The state recommends three feet, but W-H school officials were not comfortable that enough space was provided between students by that distance.
Students must also be aided through the trauma of the abrupt loss of a structured learning environment since March. Enrichment programs such as after-school activities, art, music, phys ed, athletics and the like are being reviewed to determine how they can be offered or if they will be possible.
Nurse Lisa Tobin is in contact with the Mass. Department of Public Health almost daily.
Noting social media conversations about why Commissioner of Education Jeffrey C. Riley didn’t just provide a plan for schools to adopt, Szymaniak said Riley wanted superintendents and school committees to have local control over learning environments due to differing levels of COVID across the state.
“We are W-H, and we are going to do what we feel is best for the students of Whitman and Hanson,” Szymaniak said. “We’ve stolen other ideas from other districts, that’s what good teachers do, but we have put together a plan for us.”
Comprehensive plans that were due Monday, Aug. 10 are non-binding.
The four possible models were: a return without restrictions; in-person learning with new safety requirements; a hybrid model or remote learning.
The fully-person model includes new classroom configurations, safety equipment and schedule changes. The state requires all districts to develop a hybrid model in case they are not able to bring all students back to school. Alternating schedules is one possible way to accomplish this. Masks and/or face coverings, physical distancing, more attention to hand hygiene and the creation of a COVID-19 isolation space are required for in-school instruction.
Remote learning is a routine that was done since March, with important changes to how students interact with teachers. Elementary grades would work on student instruction from 8 a.m. to noon; middle school instruction from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and high school students working from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. instruction — with a maximum of seven hours of work, including homework per day. Attendance will be taken, grades will be issued and there will be more accountability than in the spring.
“The feedback we’ve received, especially with some of the older students, the later they could go, the better,” Szymaniak said. “They were more engaged in the afternoon than they were in the morning.”
In a hybrid model, two cohorts of students would be spit into Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday in-person learning with Wednesdays used as a virtual instruction day in which teachers report to buildings to teach via devices. The district will be moving off the Zoom platform to Google Classroom or Google Meet.
“We are physically going to have a challenge transporting kids anyway, but trying to transport two cohorts in a day …” Szymaniak said. The first group would have to start on the bus as 6:05 a.m. and the last bus route would finish at 6:45 p.m. Students would be assigned cohort positions by family.
“We are asked to sort of do the impossible,” Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said. “Everybody we’ve talked to said, ‘This is brand new, this is different, but it can be done.’”
Ferro stressed the remote plan, meanwhile, is geared to a situation where the entire district would be forced to go to a remote plan.
“When your students are not in school on their cohorts, they will be face-to-face, there will be work that’s done, and that’s what’s pivotal about that Wednesday check-in, because you reteach to the students you’ve seen,” Ferro said. “You can pre-teach or you have the ability to work on things like social-emotional learning, you have the ability to work on things like citizenship, you have the ability to work on things kids need that they might miss in the traditional five days.”
Szymaniak said parents, teachers and administrators alike are all dealing with heightened anxiety over the new school year.
Special Education Director Lauren Mathieson said, regardless of what plan is approved for all students, DESE is asking districts to prioritize students with the most complex needs — and try to offer up to full-time services for those students.
“While everyone was affected by being on remote [learning], there is definitely a certain population of our students that was disproportionately affected,” she said. “There are students in this district that just cannot learn on a computer screen.”
Whether because they are either still learning English or have a learning disability, remote learning harbors obstacles for these students.
Preschool and kindergarten level special needs; learning disabled students who send the majority of their day in a sub-separate program; English language learners; and economically disadvantaged students (on a case-by-case basis) or who may be homeless are all included in the prioritized population.
Lack of internet connectivity is a concern about the last group. School officials are also planning to meet with representatives of the YMCA about potential childcare or virtual learning sites to help families who have to work.
Structures for socially distant cafeteria and gym protocols will also be included.
“The concept of movement in a school is going to be a little bit greater as the child gets older, because that is the makeup of a high school schedule,” Ferro said. “Younger grades, it’s a lot of teachers might have to move from class to class, the cohort stays — except for phys ed or the movement to the cafeteria, which is unavoidable.”
At the high school, principal Dr. Christopher Jones is working on a passing schedule to address concerns.
Facilities Director Ernest Sandland outlined how the schools are being cleaned and prepared for the school year, no matter which plan is used.
He said that on July 22, DESE provided “roadmap to an adventure we’ve been on since the kids were out of school,” regarding health of facilities.
“We were pretty much working on those early on,” he said. Repair work on windows at Hanson’s Indian Head and Hanson Middle schools was done last October. Air movement in buildings has been a major concern for DESE.
Mask breaks for students also required designation of an area of the Indian Head playground for that. Entrance controls and isolation space in the nurses’ office at schools have also been created.
HVAC systems, however, are the “magilla we’re looking at right now,” according to Sandland. “Right now the important thing is for us to get air ventilation into those [300-plus district] classrooms.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 19 professionals will be brought in to train staff on touch points and what has to be cleaned during the day when students and staff in the building and a hygienist will test cleaning crews on how well they follow the protocols.
After all the cleaning and ventilation work is done, desks in classrooms will be reconfigured according to physical distancing requirements. Storage will have to be found for extraneous items from classrooms.
Head Nurse Lisa Tobin reviewed protocols for students and staff who either become ill with COVID-19 or symptoms of it, including advising that anyone not feeling well stay home.
“The attendance police are not going to get you,” Szymaniak said.
Adjacent, but separate, rooms are being set aside for children experiencing symptoms in school so they have access to the nurse. Both towns’ boards of health have already done a walk through.
As Tobin has been shifted to a district-wide post to deal with the issues of the pandemic, a replacement, part-time nurse will be appointed at the high school to take care of preschool pupils. Two float nurses will be added to cover when another school’s nurse is absent, as well as a CNA for supervision of the medical waiting rooms
“I would rather have more than less at this point, and if we have to pull back in January, we can pull back,” Szymaniak said. “I don’t want to have a nurse’s office uncovered.”
The commissioner’s office has been concerned about what would happen when a school nurse is absent, he said.
Tobin said that, if a teacher sends a student they suspect is showing COVID symptoms to the nurses office, a nurse will be alerted and can meet the student at the door for an assessment to decide if the student will go into the medical waiting room until they are picked up by a parent.
The student will then be required to see a physician, and if tests positive, contact tracing can be done in that cohort of students. If they test negative, the student may return to school after 24 symptom-free hours. If a family opts against having their child tested, the child must stay home for a two-week quarantine.
Szymaniak said that, like the call made to change graduation plans, the plan accounts for family members potentially spreading COVID in their household and unwittingly compromising other students at the school.
Bus drivers will wear masks and will provide adequate masks for children who get on the bus without a mask. Szymaniak also wants to put a monitor on elementary buses to monitor physical distancing.
Buses will be wiped down between runs with a complete disinfection at the end of the day.