Hingham Education Association and school officials continue negotiations; enrollment numbers down

September 10, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer

With some 350 participants -- including many concerned parents -- on the School Committee's nearly three-hour remote meeting call last night, the conversation revolved around the latest Hingham Public Schools Sept. 16 reopening plan for some 4,000 students, a significant decrease in enrollments, the length of the school day, class schedules, how soon the schools could reopen with fulltime in-person learning, and many other issues.

"I know we're all frustrated, but we will get through this," Supt. of Schools Paul Austin said.

A couple of parents asked about, or referred to, the ongoing negotiations between the Hingham Education Association, Austin, and the school committee to reach a memorandum of agreement.

"We've been working on this since the end of July," Austin said. "We'll hopefully be finished by the end of this week."

Part of the negotiations relates to how the new school experience will work with the three models -- in-person, remote, and hybrid, a combination of the two -- and other issues.

"There are 70 to 80 items we are working through, and we've addressed about 60 of them," Austin said. "We're working through [the others]. We have a plan if there's an impasse, but I'm confident we will [reach an agreement] and that such a plan will be a moot point." He said he has "incredible faith in our teachers."

Remote learning first

The reopening plan calls for starting off the school year with remote learning for the first few weeks and then to move to a hybrid model for the majority of students. The reason for this is to ensure that the remote model works in the event that COVID-19 metrics cause a return to fully-remote learning at anytime during the new school year.

There will be in-person opportunities during "meet and greets" and student assessments at the various schools to help smooth the path for the new school year.

In response to a comment made by parent Julie Donovan about her and others' desire to get kids back to school fulltime as soon as possible, Austin said the goal is to return to a five-day in-person school week as soon as it is safe to do so.

After assessing how the first three weeks of school went in these very different times -- with extensive safety protocols in place, including social distancing and a requirement to wears face masks -- there will be a discussion at the School Committee's Oct. 19 meeting about whether it's practical at that time to consider a full return to in-person schooling.

"We need that much time to work out some of the issues," Austin said.

Ironically, the significant decrease in enrollments for the 2020-2021 school year will allow more space to accommodate full-time in-person learning when the switch is made back to that model.

Lower enrollments

According to Austin, there will be about 282 fewer HPS students this year than initially anticipated -- with 167 mostly ninth-graders attending private school, 55 being homeschooled, 8 who have withdrawn for unknown reasons, and 52 who have moved out of town. Another 368 K-12 students will participate in remote learning only.

The schools are fully stocked with thousands of face masks and boxes of gloves, with hand sanitizing stations at each building entrance.

The HVAC systems in all the schools have undergone preventative maintenance.

Austin also talked about the financial impacts of COVID-19 on the school budget, including reimbursable COVID-19 expenses in addition to a $980,000 all-day-kindergarten loss in revenue and an anticipated loss of $200,000 for the Kids in Action program. "That's a very big hit," he said. State aid is also expected to come in at a reduced level.

"This will be very difficult for us to make up," Austin said. "We will try to cut back in other ways."

The School Committee approved 41 home schooling requests last night -- part of the 55 mentioned above -- including plans for a pod of students taught by two teachers at a couple of off-site locations, contingent on the filing of the remaining necessary paperwork with Austin.

Developing new protocols

He noted that if this were a normal year, "Everyone would have been on cruise control during the summer, with protocols in place for the return to school. This is not a normal year, and we're having to develop protocols as we go along. We're all frustrated," he reiterated,  "but we will get there, working together."

In the end, School Committee Chairman Kerry Ni said, it's all about whether parents choose to approach these major issues "with anxiety and fear or to teach our kids to be resilient."

Following the meeting, the committee went into executive session to discuss strategy related to collective bargaining negotiations with the Hingham Education Association Unit A and B for the memorandum of agreement for the reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year.

Visit the Hingham Public Schools website to view the 90-plus page HPS reopening plan and Supt. Austin's reopening update from the Sept. 9 school committee meeting.

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