December 22, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
During a three-hour remote School Committee meeting last night -- attended by more than 170 parents and others interested in the business at hand -- an updated Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Hingham Education Association (HEA) Unit A for the reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year was unanimously approved.
Some parents attending the meeting expressed frustration that there hasn't yet been a full return to in-person learning for all students and concern that 25 percent of Hingham High School students have taken the remote learning path, at least for the time being.
There has been an increase from 90 at the beginning of the school year to 300 students who are now engaged in remote-only learning. "I find this surprising," Principal Rick Swanson said. "The reasons are varied, but there are legitimate concerns for safety. There have been 30 COVID-19 cases at the high school, including 19 in December. We're hoping this is temporary and that those students will return."
The MOA relates in part to a phased-in re-entry plan for in-person learning -- with a focus on K-2 -- and relocation of Foster grades 1 and 2 to St. Jerome's in Weymouth, dubbed by Supt. Paul Austin, "Foster North" -- effective Feb. 1.
The MOA also relates to safety protocols and an agreement that Hingham Public Schools administrators and the HEA will meet "at least twice per month to continue collaboration and to address issues and opportunities." The negotiation meetings include two School Committee members, four people from the administration, six members of HEA, and a lawyer from each side.
In addition, under the MOA, what is called the "COVID-19 Exposure Procedure" will be reviewed at each COVID Response Team meeting for compliance with current Center for Disease Control, Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Hingham Health Department guidelines.
Effective Jan. 11 under the phased-in return to in-person learning plan, students in kindergarten classes across the district will return to school five days per week, four hours per day.
Students in grades 1 and 2 will begin to attend classes in-person on Wednesday, Jan. 13, alternating weekly between cohorts.
"All elementary classrooms will be equipped with air purifiers as an added precaution," Austin said.
No sooner than Feb. 1 and following a minimum of three weeks of the Town of Hingham being in the "green" or "gray" COVID-19 zone (whereas it's currently in the higher-risk "yellow" zone) and no evidence of school-based transmission -- according to the updated MOA -- students in grades 1 and 2 will return to school five days per week, four hours a day.
Students in grades 3, 4, and 5 -- under those same conditions -- will begin to attend in-person on Wednesdays, alternating weekly between cohorts.
No sooner than March 1 and following a minimum of three weeks of the town being in the "gray" or "green" category and no school-based transmission, students in grades 3, 4, and 5 will return to school five days per week, four hours a day.
With regard to secondary school considerations, effective Jan. 11, the middle and high school principals -- in collaboration with classroom teachers -- will begin a process of bringing more students into in-person learning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, based on class size and enrollment and maintaining social distancing.
Comments were made that not having a clear timeline for the secondary level was "nerve-wracking" and that the school year is half over with no full return to in-person learning yet in place.
"We realize the pandemic has challenged us all in different ways, but we will continue to strive to do what is in the best interest of the entire Hingham Public Schools community," Austin said, thanking all involved for their "hard work and perseverance."
Parent Susan O’Horo and others think that a full return to in-person learning plan should be in place already. "Our kids belong in school, and the barriers [to implementing such a plan] that are being put in front of teachers and students are ridiculous."
O’Horo also said that one of the most important factors to consider should be the number of COVID-19 cases in the school district, and not the town wide numbers, which are higher.
Other parents said they don't feel that the MOA stipulation related to the town being in the "gray" or "green zone" is realistic.
Austin explained that while the HPS overall transmission rate has been low, schoolchildren have families they go home to [outside of the school environment], "so it's important that we get the community spread down to either of those levels."
He reiterated the importance of abiding by COVID-19 guidelines. "It was brought to my attention that over the weekend a group of about 30 students went sledding together, without social distancing or face masks."
'We're all working together'
School Committee member Liza O'Reilly emphasized school officials' and teachers' desire to transition more students back to in-person learning. "We do have to start someplace, though," she said. "There's no one magic number. We'll continue to look at and manage the data, and if we're doing well we'll keep going, and if it looks dangerous and we have concerns, we will pull back. No one has gone through a pandemic before, and we're all working together to make sure everyone is comfortable."
Stephanie Purtell said it's difficult for parents "to see their children falling apart" under the strain and that while her children have had "amazing" teachers, she's "not sure the union has our children's best interests at heart."
School Committee member Michelle Ayer who, like O’Reilly, is part of the team that negotiates with the HEA, noted that "the teachers are the union, and the union is the teachers," which she said is sometimes misunderstood. "It's hard on parents to see their kids struggling, and on the teachers, too. The union really cares, and teachers are doing their best to get our kids through this year and to stay healthy and safe. These are incredibly trying times for students, parents, and educators."
Austin said it's "hurtful" to see social media comments that are negative toward teachers, administrators, and school officials. "The HEA is not the enemy, nor are the superintendent, the School Committee, or other school officials," he said. "COVID-19 is the enemy, and we have to work together to [beat it]."
Another parent, who is deep into helping her child with remote learning, said that despite her dissatisfaction with her feelings of impatience and inadequacy in this role, she is grateful to school officials for all they are doing and is trying to "remain positive."
Mental health support available
HPS Director of School Counseling Heather Rodriguez made a socio-emotional supports presentation, outlining training HPS staff underwent in September, including trauma sensitivity, the calm classroom concept of cultivating peaceful, engaged school communities, self-care strategies, and student screenings.
"We've been hearing a lot of concerns about the mental health of our students [related to COVID-19]," Austin said.
Steps to help students included a trauma screening that took place at the start of the school year geared toward identifying students struggling with pandemic-related issues.
The counseling department can also refer students and families to outside mental health resources as needed.
"We do what we can to help our students succeed," Rodriguez said.
Asst. Supt. of Schools Jamie LaBillois said a comprehensive data analysis will take place early next year "to address the socio-emotional and academic impacts on student’s' performance" as a result of the lack of in-person learning during the pandemic.