The School Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 18 supported the school district’s hybrid learning format in the face of what Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak termed confusion over Gov. Baker’s change of school reopening policy.
The committee agreed to wait until after the December break to make any decision about remote learning based on what data Szymaniak can amass on the potential impact of the proposed changes in that time.
The district will be reactivating its COVID team, as well, to look at the realistic feasibility of bringing students back to school full-time.
Baker urged a move to all in-person education “if feasible” for districts in lower-risk communities moved Szymaniak to ask the Committee to support the hybrid model. He noted some parents have already been abusive over the phone with district staff.
“We want to get our kids back in, but I also want to make sure they’re safe when they’re here and our teachers are safe,” Szymaniak said, noting Baker must determine if remote instruction will be offered at all next year.
“The biggest thing that we’re talking about is feasibility,” Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said. “That’s the question that’s out there in society right now.”
To meet the governor’s urging, evidence is needed that social distancing of less than six feet in school and on buses, is needed, according to Szymaniak.
Ferro noted that the district bus capacity is now 24 students on a 72-passenger bus.
“Their seat is still theirs,” Ferro said in response to Committee member Michael Jones’ question of what to do about families who sign a child up for bus transportation at the start of the school year, but don’t use it. “Whether they take it or not, as a regional school district, we really don’t have a say.”
Ferro said the district may also anticipate a shortage of drivers if COVID causes more illness and assigned seating makes contact tracing easier if a student falls ill.
Committee member Christopher Howard agreed with Szymaniak and Ferro’s approach, but said parents who have changed their mind about sending their child to school on the bus should advise the school district as soon as possible so their child’s seat can be reassigned.
Committee member Dan Cullity said the governor is “way off on this.” While Cullity favors full-time in-person school it is not feasible nor is it logisitically or financially possible right now.
“The governor’s own words were: Every district is going to be different,” Committee member Fred Small agreed. Small pointed to New York City’s announcement that all schools went to remote Nov. 18 this week after a 3 percent positivity rate in COVID tests. Hanson’s is 2.78 percent and Whitman is at 4.71 percent.
There are things at school — like hand-washing reinforcement and easier contact tracing — that is keeping kids safe, said Committee member Hillary Kniffen, who is a teacher, but students are also in the groove of a routine with hybrid instruction right now.
Placing desks at closer than six feet would require the purchase and daily cleaning of Plexiglas dividers and safety must be taken into account, placing accurate contact tracing at risk.
“I like Gov. Baker and I’ve agreed with a lot of what he’s done, but to give a blanket statement that’s going to direct what we do is a challenge for me,” Szymaniak said. “The safety piece for me is huge. The mixed message around three and six feet, educationally … that doesn’t sync when you’re trying to teach a child safety protocols.”
Logistics also present a problem for a district with 13 trailers stuffed with furniture cleared from rooms to accommodate Baker’s six-feet guideline. Facilities Director Ernest Sandland has estimated it would take 1,000 man hours to switch back.
Szymaniak also outlined the school district’s holiday travel policy.
Students and staff who planned travel over Thanksgiving to non-low-risk states “and I don’t know if there are any anymore in the country,” must quarantine for 14 days or provide a negative COVIS-19 test administered 72 hours before arrival back in Massachusetts before being allowed to return to school, Szymaniak reported. School Committee member Fred Small participated in the meeting remotely via telephone.
The test must be an FDA/EU-approved molecular PCR test, rather than a rapid test. The alternative is to obtain the test after returning to Massachusetts and quarantining until after obtaining a negative result.
One staff member recently ran into a complication with travel when New York was removed from the low-risk state list over the Nov. 14-15 weekend.
“I anticipate some people traveling,” Szymaniak said. “I anticipate some issues after Thanksgiving.”
He said that, while some districts are mandating quarantines, W-H is not doing so, but rather is hoping people respect the guidelines.
“I hope people are smart,” he said, noting a discussion with students on the issue led to his being asked to remind the public that little kids must still wear masks for dance or karate classes and other activities outside school.
“The second [message] was there are parties going on in Whitman and Hanson,” Szymaniak said. “There are large social gatherings at people’s homes with parents that they are allowed to have. ‘Can you please tell them to knock it off.’”
Students asked him to remind people to be smart about COVID because they want to come to school.
Large social gatherings in Scituate and Cohasset have led to schools returning to all-remote learning for two weeks.
Szymaniak reported there are three students now quarantining in the district and four had tested positive between Nov. 4 and 18.
There were 65 students in “various stages of quarantine” during those two weeks. And two staff members were positive during that period, with one still under quarantine.
Since the start of the school year, 22 students and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, Szymaniak said. There were a total of 122 students and 36 staff who had to be quarantined at some point, due to close contact with others testing positive or awaiting test results. Staff quarantines included pre-travel quarantines and those awaiting test results.
“Kids want to be in school,” Szymaniak. “I’m just asking people to do the right thing.”
There are already 521 students in remote learning by parental choice throughout the district, which averages between $2,500 and $5,000 per pupil if the district had to pay for the program.
“My concern is more parents are going to choose to move to remote, if we move to an in-person model, and we won’t be able to afford that,” Szymaniak said. There are 3,583 students who attend classes on in-person days within school buildings now, along with 38 out-of-district students.
Last year there were 33 home school students in Whitman and Hanson. In 2021 there are 96 signed up.
“I’m hoping some parents see, as we turn the corner, if we’ve contained [COVID] in our hybrid model,” he said. “There’s no student-to-student contact in terms of positive cases in the school yet.”
Szymaniak said he is hopeful the hybrid model has helped with that. Cases in the district have centered on a youth hockey cluster and a birthday party involving remote students or parents had tested positive.