Parents and students in the Whitman-Hanson and South Shore Tech school districts moved to remote plans through Jan. 19 as COVID-19 positivity rates in their member communities have increased over the holidays.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts has reached the “severe outbreak” status for the first during the pandemic on Monday, Jan. 11, according to data tracking nonprofit COVID Act Now.
In Whitman-Hanson, high school students were the only ones in the district moved to remote learning on Jan. 8 with a return to hybrid learning planned on Tuesday, Jan. 19, Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak announced in an email to parents that was also posted on the district website. Another post on Tuesday announced the school’s cohort B would return to a hybrid schedule Jan. 14.
“Teachers and students will follow the remote schedule that was used on Dec. 21 and 22,” Szymaniak said. “During this time of remote learning, we are also postponing all athletic practices and contests.”
Szymaniak said the district has taken all the steps necessary to reduce the chance of this situation occurring.
“We continue to adhere to DPH and DESE protocols, and while we have seen a significant increase in the number of cases in our town and within the school community, there have only been a few select cases that we determined to have been transmitted in the school community,” he said. “Nonetheless, the numbers documented are concerning and out of caution, I feel this is the correct step to take for the health and safety of our students and staff.”
SST Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey said the vocational high school is making a “slight adjustment” for the students on the academic week for the 14-day post-vacation window.
“I anticipate a return to a regular hybrid schedule during the week of Jan. 19,” Hickey said, noting he had advised parents on Facebook.
On Friday, Jan. 8, Gov. Baker said the Commonwealth will make weekly COVID-19 pool testing available to all schools and districts within the next month. The method is aimed at providing more safeguards to stop the spread of COVID while also giving school officials more knowledge about what is happening in buildings every day, he said.
Pool testing permits the review of up to 20 swabs at a time, state officials said. Salem, Watertown and Medford districts have already begun using pool testing with encouraging results, according to DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley.
“This is something people have been working on for months,” Baker said. “The data around this is clear, that in-person learning is essential to kids’ education, developmental and emotional well-being, and we’ve shown we can control the spread of the virus in classrooms when the right steps are in place.”
Detailed guidelines for the state’s approach were developed in June 2020 by medical experts and endorsed by the Mass. Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics to support safe, in-person learning for all students. The commonwealth has also invested more than $1 billion to cover COVID-related expenses for schools, Baker said.
“Children, and especially high-needs children, have borne the brunt of this terrible virus as their lives, routines and educations have been upended,” Baker said.
Students and parents across the country, meanwhile, have begun turning to social media to lament about educational setbacks in remote and hybrid learning models, which Hickey admits is a concern.
“It is a challenge,” Hickey said. “But we’re meeting the challenge by teachers being very patient and flexible, and administratively and with our guidance staff, we’re also trying to provide some wrap-around support.”
Toward that end, SST is holding what they are calling a Saturday School on Jan. 16 to provide in-person help to catch up, if needed, in a socially distanced setting. Teachers also meet remotely with students for extra help during before and after school hours.
While SST’s in-person start times are staggered, starting at 9 a.m. on academic days, which permits teachers to meet with students between 7:40 a.m. and 9, to see a specific teacher or report to the lecture hall on remote days if they require some structure and routine even if they do not need extra help.
“We are in regular contact with all of the kids, whether they’re fully remote, or otherwise,” Hickey said.
Meanwhile, Hickey said SST is working on scheduling models for next year that will take every contingency into consideration.
“For us, one of the biggest indicators that I’ll be looking for is will the state and public health officials relax the transportation guidelnes,” he said. “If I can’t put more than 23 kids on a bus, I will be forced to continue the staggered schedule that we have.”
That and easing the social distancing regulations for lunches would be needed to allow a return to a “normal” schedule, according to Hickey.
“We will continue our partnership with the boards of health in Whitman and Hanson and monitor the cases for a safe return to school,” Szymaniak stated. “If you have any questions, please feel free to contact my office at 781-618-7412.”