| Sarah Heinonen
HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – Two days after a four–hour marathon meeting on Aug. 10, the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee unanimously voted to adopt a hybrid model for the 2020-2021 school year.
Superintendent Albert Ganem said there were two guiding principles in the reopening of school: The health and safety of students and staff, which he said was his top priority, and the “return to learning with community building and connection.”
The hybrid model separates the student body into two main cohorts. The first group of students will attend classes in-person on Monday and Tuesday of each week, while the other group will attend those same classes remotely. On Wednesdays, all students will work remotely to allow the custodial staff a chance to sanitize schools. On Thursdays and Fridays, the students who worked remotely on the first two days of the week will receive in-person instruction while the other half of students engage in remote learning. High-needs students and those with specific extenuating circumstances will qualify to attend school on all four of the in-person teaching days.
Families may also opt for full remote learning. Ganem said that once a family decides to enroll their child in either the remote or the hybrid program, they must commit for the full marking period. An exception would be made for illnesses, he said.
Ganem made his case for a return to school after posting the proposed options on the district’s website. The school committee asked several questions before opening the floor to questions submitted via the internet from some of the more than 650 members of the public that attended the meeting.
On the day of the vote, Ganem noted that DESE had released a rubric on what model to use based on the status of COVID-19 transmission rates in each community. The rubric suggests that municipalities with cases lower than four per 100,000, such as Wilbraham and Hampden, go back full-time or using a hybrid design.
School Committee Member Bill Bontempi asked the superintendent to explain why a fully in-person model was not an option for the district. Ganem said the district had completed “pressure testing” to ensure the district could adhere to distancing guidelines in classes, hallways, lunches and on buses.
“We just don't have the physical spacing. We want to be able to make sure that our kids are safe. We want to make sure our teachers are safe,” Ganem said. In addition to space, he said, hiring additional teachers for the extra classrooms that a full return would require would be cost prohibitive. Beyond that, he said, the logistics of arrival and dismissal, as well moving that many students around, would take “the entire day.”
The recommendation from Ganem to return with a hybrid model was further informed by results of a parent and caregiver survey that found 80.6 percent of respondents would opt to send their children back with a hybrid plan. Less than 20 percent opted for solely remote learning.
Ganem presented a video from DESE titled “Doctors on back-to-school in Mass,” in which physicians spoke about the state of COVID-19 in Massachusetts, changes in classroom layout to make school safer and the importance of maintaining hand-washing, mask-wearing and social distancing behaviors. More information on these topics can be found at www.doe.mass.edu/covid–19.
School Committee Member Patrick Kiernan asked why students and staff were not being temperature tested daily. Nurse Coordinator Terry Brand said temperature testing is not recommended by DESE, but families are expected to self-screen their children for a list of common COVID-19 symptoms. Caretakers and parents must sign a “student wellness certification agreement” that attests to a daily screening of their child’s health.
When asked about who would be teaching remote classes, Ganem said that the teachers instructing remotely would be HWRSD teachers. While a statewide fully-remote “virtual high school” exists, he said the cost of all students attending that platform would be too high.
“Our goal all along is that our students remotely would be housed in our schools and would be participating with our teachers,” Ganem assured. Stony Hill School Principal Monique Dangleis said that there will be two faculty members teaching the hybrid remote classes. The literacy and math coaches in the district will take on those roles, along with some additional staff members, who need to be hired.
Dangleis explained what remote education would look like at the elementary level. Students would begin days with a Zoom meeting going over the lessons for the day. They would then work “semi-independently” with small group Zoom meetings throughout the day. The work would be submitted through Class Dojo or Google Classroom.
“Students at home would be getting the exact same objectives and standards that are being taught in the classroom on that same day,” Dangleis said.
For those students whose families decide to engage in fully remote learning, Dangleis said, the teacher would teach each lesson and then send the students to do the work independently. The children would return to the Zoom meeting at a designated time for the next lesson.
Wilbraham Middle School Principal John Derosia laid out the hybrid model at the middle school level. Students will be using Google Classroom and Chromebooks, whether in-person or remotely on any given day. He said Zoom can be used to break into small groups of students that include those present in the classroom and online. Students will be moving from one room to another for classes, while teachers stay in place. In addition to core classes seventh– and eighth–graders will have variety of math and related arts classes.
At Minnechaug Regional High School, Principal Steven Hale said all students will be expected to attend class on time, whether in person or remotely.
“We won’t be able to have any more kids sleeping until 11[a.m.]. They need to be up and signed into their class at 7:35 [a.m.] and follow their schedule for the day,” Hale said.
In typical lessons, a teacher will describe the learning objective and instruct their students. Hale said they would like to have breaks from the screen, where students work independently in class and at home, and then regroup for a recap of the lesson. Homework will be assigned, as usual.
In terms of technology, the district is approaching readiness. IT Director Bill Powers said 260 laptops have been ordered and were ready to be distributed to faculty.
“Remote learning in video conferencing needs a better-suited device. I know that there were struggles, which could have been connectivity, but it could have been the device, so we got [teachers] decent laptops, which is going to actually support them for years to come,” Powers said.
Additionally, fiber optic installation is underway and the computer labs have been converted, since the use of Chromebooks negates the need for desktop computers.
School Committee Vice-Chair Maura Ryan asked what happens if teachers are not comfortable coming back in person. Ganem told her district is working on that within the established guidelines on how long a faculty member may be out.
Questions the district received from the public via email fell into several broad categories: special education, remote learning, cohorting, technology, busing, safety and individual schools.
Addressing cohorting, Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Professional Learning Tom Mazza said the district will soon be letting parents know in which cohort their children have been placed. Because cohorts are balanced, parents are not allowed to choose the days their child will attend school. The factors that went into the cohorting include siblings, bus stops and an even split of students.
“We believe that we have been able to surface contact, as many students will be transitioning out of classes. Reducing the numbers, we believe that we are able to facilitate more efficient tracing through our cohorting in the event any student does become ill,” Mazza said.
Outgoing Director of Finance operations and Human resources Howard Barber said that the buses used for most students hold 71 passengers. Under the one-third capacity limit set by DESE, 23 students can be transported on one bus in a single run. By essentially cutting the student population on any given day in half, the district estimates it will have enough buses to transport students, however, Barber said if a family indicates they will not be using the bus for transportation, it cannot be changed as the district will not be able to acquire more buses the beginning of the year.
Bus monitors will be used to help ensure students remain in their seats.
For the current population of special education students, Barber said the district would need 45 15-passenger vehicles to maintain the 3-foot distance on buses. More work is required to solve the special education transportation issue. Ganem said that sharing buses must be sanitized.
Ed Cenedella, director of facilities and maintenance, told the school committee and members of the public listening that a deep cleaning was done of all surfaces including electrostatic cleaning that allows sanitizer to stick to all surfaces including the underside of desks and tables.
Cenedella also reported that barriers are being fabricated from steel and plexiglass as needed, all signage, masks and sanitizer is in stock.
Restrooms will be sanitized every two hours and touch points throughout the buildings three times daily.
Cenedella explained that every school in the district, except for Soule Road School and Thornton W. Burgess, have energy management systems that can be controlled from the central office. This allows the district to set air changes per hour. Soule Road school and TWB have manual systems for air change. A rate of six to eight air changes per hour has been set in classrooms.
A medical isolation room has been designated in each building for students experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Students in the isolation rooms will be under adult supervision by a certified nurse’s aide or an LPN, the hiring of whom has been paid for through federal coronavies relief funding.
Ryan inquired about the protocol for a case of COVID-19 in schools. Brand explained that decisions were made in collaboration with town’s board of health, school administrators and epidemiology units at the Department of Public Health (DPH). DESE and DPH may be developing metrics to make those decisions more streamlined, Brand said.
Ryan also asked what concerns they should have for surrounding towns in which staff and teachers live. Ganem said they had to trust that people are wearing their masks and following precautions.
Mazza turned to reading questions from the Zoom meeting’s chat. After an hour of question and answer, the committee decided to extend the meeting for an additional 30 minutes to accommodate the volume of questions. Some of the information from question and answer period follows:
• Masks must be worn by students in grades K through 12. The mask must cover the mouth and nose, should fit snugly against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, be made with more than one layer of material and be washable.
• Students who refuse to wear a mask will be worked with to overcome mask–anxiety. Otherwise, Ganem said, it is a “discipline issue.” Those with a disability who are unable to wear a mask must have a note stating the reason. Staff in close proximity to those students will wear an extra layer of PPE.
• The district, the teachers’ union and 22 educators are designing professional learning to address COVID safety training for staff.
• Families are not expected to purchase Chromebooks. That cost will be absorbed by the district.
• Dedicated entrances will avoid crowding at the middle and high schools.
• Schools will not be hosting most outside programming such as catechism to limit the number of people using the buildings.
• Parents are asked to complete the survey as soon as possible so the district knows how many people will be enrolling in hybrid learning.
• Pre-K will still offer morning and afternoon classes, with sanitation between them.
• The sanitization chemicals used are eco–friendly and student should not come into contact with dangerous chemicals.
• An adult presence is needed in the home to supervise children during remote learning.
• Parents will be notified if their student qualifies for the four-day learning model.
• The district will be purchasing voice application mics for teachers using remote technology
• Hallway distancing will be accomplished through signage and supervision.
• Any child with COVID-like symptoms will be treated as “suspect COVID” until tested, Brand said. Close contacts including classmates and siblings only need to quarantine if a student tests positive.
• The district will continue to provide meals in-person and remote learning days.
• Lockers will not be used to eliminate gathering places.
• Bubblers will be disabled but any existing touchless water bottle fillers will be available.
After the question and answer period, Kiernan broached the subject of a phased-in hybrid model, but Ganem insisted the high school kids need socialization and face-to-face time as much as the younger grades. It was ultimately decided that all grades will engage in in–person learning beginning in September.
“We’ve got work to do. And what I’m asking right now is that we support each other. There’s no blueprint for this,” Ganem said.