August 1, 2020 by Carol Britton Meyer
True to his word, Supt. of Schools Paul Austin and the 100-member Recovery Response Advisory Committee finished crafting the much-anticipated Hingham Public Schools preliminary, four-phase school reopening plan last night to safely bring students and staff back to school.
Out of the three learning models -- in-person, remote, and hybrid (a combination of the two) -- a phased-in remote/hybrid learning plan is the recommended option to start off the school year, due to safety and health concerns related to COVID-19.
Pledge for new school year
"Our goal and pledge for 2020-2021 is to ensure that each and every student safely achieves a full year of academic and personal growth," Austin said in a statement that accompanied the plan that was emailed to parents and others late yesterday. "Though this school year will look different, I remain confident in the ability of our educators and administrators to adapt our educational program to best serve our students' needs during the COVID crisis."
This phased-in plan brings students in greatest need of in-person instruction and support, including those with disabilities, back to school every day.
"Other students may attend in person in small groups and in distanced settings with precautions in place," Austin said. "When students are not attending in-person sessions, the district will provide a robust remote learning program."
Fully-remote option available
Following a successful initial phase of opening, accompanied by positive health metrics, the district will evaluate the potential of bringing additional students back into school buildings on a hybrid basis -- combining in-person instruction with a robust remote learning program on the days students are not scheduled to be physically in school. A fully-remote option will be available to families who choose it.
Adjustments will be made along the way as deemed necessary.
Austin emphasized that under normal circumstances "students are best-served in schools every day, interacting with their peers and engaged in live classroom learning." He also acknowledged that the remote learning program implemented following the "abrupt school closure" several months ago "did not fully serve all students."
Hingham parents share their thoughts
A Hingham parent commented about the preliminary plan, while another shared with the Hingham Anchor what the new school year will look like for her family.
Sonia Steele said her two third- and fifth-grade daughters would normally attend Foster School but will be learning at home by participating in the fully-remote option. "We have two high-risk family members under our roof. I know some families feel very strongly about having their children learn in-person, but we simply can’t risk a parent sending a child into school anyway with 'just a cold' symptoms," she said. "We already know this happens every year during cold and flu season (that’s how we all get sick!), and based on behaviors observed around town and discussions on social media, we have no confidence that this will change. We plan to supplement the remote lessons with fun activities and to continue safely-distanced visits with a few close friends until it is safe to do otherwise."
Suzanne Garland, an active participant in all three of her children's classrooms -- serving as room mother for the past three years at East School and on the board of her daughter's preschool -- has been involved with the back-to-school initiative as a member of the RRAC Communication Subcommittee since the Spring, and holds a different view.
" I am a huge proponent of the value of public schools -- my mother and aunt are lifelong public school teachers," she said.
In June, Garland started a petition to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Governor Charlie Baker urging them to reopen schools this Fall. More than 2,000 people signed it.
"We were pleased to see the guidance from DESE at the end of June urging school districts to return as many children to the classroom as possible, citing multiple scientific studies pointing to the benefits of in-person schooling," Garland said. "The Centers for Disease Control, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Surgeon General have all said children need to be in school. Specifically, the Surgeon General has suggested schools could reopen in communities with a positive test rate of under 10 percent. Massachusetts is currently at 2.1 percent, and Hingham is even lower. Why are we not listening to the experts?"
The Hingham Parents for Full Time School Facebook page -- started by Garland and two other mothers, Erin Elefante and Nicole Dunn, and which Garland said "is in no way affiliated with the RRAC and does not necessarily represent the views of the school administration" -- is a way for concerned parents to stay up-to-date on the many details of the DESE guidance and Hingham's work on the return to school.
This Facebook page is also a place for parents to voice their thoughts, concerns, and questions. "After writing the petition, I received so many emails, texts, and phone calls from friends and acquaintances that it seemed easier to have a central place to share information. It has been a great opportunity to connect with parents in the district," she said.
Garland had this to say about the preliminary plan: "We are obviously in an unprecedented time. Everyone on the committee is working very hard. The safety and health of our students, teachers, and staff is paramount."
Referring to the "very low virus numbers [referred to above]," Garland went on to say that she believes that the priority should be meeting the needs of the whole child.
"This plan seems to fall short of that. With so many outdoor spaces and available facilities (Rec Center, Community Center, etc.) in Hingham, I would prefer to see more creative solutions for in-person school," Garland said.
She went on to say that as part of a recent family survey administered to HPS parents, "the majority indicated that they would be likely to send their children to school this Fall (more than half even said so with three-foot desk spacing). Our children have been out of school since March, and this plan does not get them back to in-person learning, in any meaningful capacity, until October at the earliest. Additionally, the metrics for advancing between phases are undefined. This is a major disservice to our children, and I am heartbroken for them."
Final plan due Aug. 10
The deadline for submitting the preliminary reopening plan to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was July 31 (yesterday). The HPS district's final plan for reopening, due Aug. 10, will include updated DESE guidance and requires School Committee approval.
"Given the significant changes reopening plans necessitate in the way schools operate, we also must negotiate our proposal with all impacted employee unions," Austin said in the statement. "We are on a very tight timeline — less than two weeks until the deadline set by DESE for submitting final fall plans."
Hingham Education Association President June Gustafson told the Hingham Anchor that she believes the HPS plan to return to school is "smart in that it is a phased-in approach and hopefully gives us time to plan the many details to make all phases successful for our community. There are enormous complexities to be addressed for smooth and safe implementation."
Following DESE guidance
In order to adhere to the school re-opening guidance provided by DESE -- consistent with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Pediatric Association -- the RRAC concluded that the HPS cannot safely meet physical distancing requirements with all students and staff in the buildings at the same time.
"However, we do believe we can make significant changes in our school schedules and operating procedures to make a partial return to in-person learning on a hybrid basis both safe and successful," Austin said.
In order to accomplish the overall goal of returning as many students as possible to in-person learning when the time is deemed right, school officials and the RRAC created a four-phase reopening plan to ensure social distancing that includes health and safety measures such as face coverings, frequent handwashing, cleaning and sanitizing, regular screening for illness symptoms, and a stay-at-home policy when students or staff are ill -- all geared toward minimizing the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
The targeted start date for the new school year is on or around Sept. 15.
The School Committee is hosting three community forums Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 9:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m., and 7 p.m. Participation and input from all stakeholders is encouraged. To ensure that as many questions as possible are addressed, send them — along with comments/concerns — to Libby Lewiecki, School Committee Community Outreach Chair, at firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, Aug. 3, at 5 p.m.
Updates related to the development of a final plan will be posted on social media and shared through other means as well.
"Thanks to the work of more than 100 teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders [serving on RRAC], I am confident that we can prioritize both safety and learning as we prepare for the start of a successful school year," Austin said. He expressed appreciation for the patience and cooperation exhibited by all involved "in these difficult times."