The W-H Regional School District is committed to safeguarding the safety and health of students and staff, officials say — and that means a return to in-person learning will not likely happen before the end of March.
“Our numbers in the communities have gone down, but we’re still quarantining students and staff due to positivity rates,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said.
He told the School Committee meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 10 that the district will have to work out strategies for social-emotional support for students and when they return to school.
Szymaniak said he is still looking toward the end of March, but parents have been starting to demand a March 1 return. That, he said is unlikely because the district would need the month of March to prepare for students’ return. He is planning a March 3 presentation to the committee on what the return plan might look like.
“We’ve always had a plan, but we want to make sure it’s structured and good for all,” he said. “It will not look like March 12, 2020.”
Committee members agreed with Szymaniak’s approach, especially since teachers are still waiting for vaccinations, which are still difficult to obtain.
The CDC issued changes to its COVID guidelines Friday, Feb. 12 for the first time since August, stopping short of green-lighting an immediate return to classes.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the CDC is “not mandating that schools reopen,” instead opting for a color-coded zone approach based on numbers of new cases in a given area.
“Schools in areas with substantial transmission (orange, 50 to 99 new cases per 100,000) may still consider a limited reopening, as long as they can layer multiple safety strategies in the classroom,” according to an NPR report. “In hard-hit communities (red, more than 100 new cases per 100,000), elementary schools may consider limited reopening, with physical distancing required, but the CDC recommends middle and high schools be virtual-only unless mitigation strategies can be met.”
School distircts in many states have been demanding more practical information on reopening, according to the CDC. Still, the six-foot social distancing rules “should be considered nonnegotiable” for K-12 schools in high-transmission areas. Teachers would not be required to be vaccinated, but there is a recognition that teachers would prefer vaccinations before returning to work.
“It seemed like the wheels of the bus came off in the South Shore [region] a little bit last week, with some announcement that some districts with a full return to school,” he said, noting he sent another parent survey about return to school issues last week.
Resident Susan Wolford of Birchbark Drive in Hanson asked about the survey parents received from Szymaniak about returning to school during the Public Forum.
“I was looking for when and if there was a plan in place for when the kids are going to return full time,” she asked.
Szymaniak reminded committee members of the administration’s presentation of return options at the beginning of the school year, when the committee made it clear the most important thing was the safety and health of students and staff.
“So far that’s been true and I have no doubt that’s the first thing we have in our hearts and in our minds,” he said.
The committee chose the hybrid plan, while accommodating families that asked for a fully remote plan, with additional teachers hired to fill that role. Teachers who have tested positive have also been able to teach remotely from home, Szymaniak said.
“We have some long-term subs across the district that are in classrooms,” he also said. “That cost us.”
That is an expense for which the district is seeking reimbursement funds through the CARES Act. There are, however, regulations about how the district could use such funds and it is not clear at the moment if it can be used to balance the fiscal 2022 budget.
“There’s been some huge community push to get students in school — that’s our goal,” Szymaniak said. “Bottom line: If I can get students in here, that’s what I want to do.”
But, keeping to the tenets of health concerns, the district has not yet moved off the recommendation for six-foot social distancing and the limitations that it brings to classroom sizes. He apologized if the survey was interpreted as an attempt to be negative.
Even if teachers are vaccinated, which has not happened yet, the six-foot distance could be revised to three-feet or less. Movement between classrooms or around lockers would make contact tracing more difficult.
“With every challenge, we can modify and overcome the challenge, but parents need to know this — that this is going to be a change,” Szymaniak said.
The survey results indicate 67 percent of parents want full in-person learning or 2,204 responses. Students now learning remotely whose families want to send them back to school, would have an effect of class size.
Social distancing at lunches might also change. In some communities, when there is a limit to space, students have brought a blanket to eat sitting on the floor, which can affect other uses of school space.
There are also academic challenges when most students come back and a few others remain on remote learning. Space limitations on buses could also present challenges.
“I’m concerned about next year’s budget,” said resident Shawn Kain of Forest Street in Whitman during the Public Forum via Zoom. “Obviously with COVID, for anyone involved with the schools — teachers, students and parents — it has placed an incredible mental health burden on all of us and the thought of potentially losing funds next year is terrible.”
He said budget cuts to education at this moment would do “a good amount of harm,” noting the insight Hanson has already provided into their financial situation. Arguing that, since Hanson’s need to seek an override even for a level-service budget is less than ideal, Kain said it would be a good idea to extend the assessment formula compromise for another year.
In other business, Assistant Superintendent George Ferro provided an assessment testing update for the committee. A midyear assessment was given to students in kindergarten to grade five on math and ELA (reading), following similar assessments at the start of the year.
“Overall, for math, from the beginning of the year to now … we went from 21 percent on grade-level to 40 percent on grade-level,” Ferro said. The number of students in need of educational support is down 63 percent to 51 percent of students, while closing the gap in the high-needs areas down to 9 percent, he said.
“In math, we are moving more students to grade level and we have seen significant progress from our initial beginning of year term to our midyear report,” he said.
There was also progress in reading scores, Ferro said, explaining that at-risk students will receive extra help in improving before an end-of-year assessment and reviewing a regression plan for the summer as well as entering the next school year.