Longmeadow School Committee votes to start school year remotely with phased in approach

Aug. 12, 2020 | Payton North

LONGMEADOW –  The Longmeadow School Committee met on Aug. 6 to discuss how they will reopen the school district. Ultimately, the committee voted in a 6 to 1 motion to have a remote start to the school year with a phased in approach.

In the Longmeadow Public Schools (LPS) reopening update plan, which can be viewed by the public at  https://drive.google.com/file/d/1vxYzQpV0Z0LZfP3A3ZFcc-nGdsVA_iic/view, three plans are highlighted which were reviewed at the meeting. One, a fully remote plan for all learners. The second, a hybrid model for grades 3-12 and in-person learning for Pre-K through grade 2. The third, a “phasing in more in-person learning,” plan.

Each plan offered a description. In the “fully remote for all learners” plan, it explained that the recommendation to move to this model would be warranted if the following was fulfilled: “required by regional health metrics, staffing doesn’t support hybrid model, maintaining the 6-foot distance standard is not possible, we face an inadequate supply of PPE and sanitization supplies, safety and health protocols cannot be consistently implanted, if facilities do not meet safety standards.”

In the “hybrid model for grades 3-12, in-person learning for Pre-K through grade 2” model, it explains a similar plan to what other districts in the area have discussed. The states, “Hybrid plan for grades 3-12 – Cohort A attends in–person for a full day on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Cohort B attends in–person for a full day on Thursday/Friday. Wednesday – half day of remote instruction in the a.m. and half day of independent learning in the p.m. Full, daily, in-person learning for students in Pre-K through [grade 2].” In addition, students and families who opted out of the hybrid model and elected to take part in remote–only learning are considered part of Cohort C.

Finally, in the third option, the “phasing in more in-person learning” model, it explains that as the district moves forward, LPS would “regularly reassess health metrics to determine if it is possible to safely schedule more students and staff into in-person models.” In addition, it reads that this model would “identify priority grades and/or student groups for additional in–person learning.”

Early on in discussions during the Aug. 6 meeting, Hensch asked to modify the originally proposed hybrid plan. In the hybrid plan, students in kindergarten through second grade were suggested to be fully in-person, while the other grades would experience the hybrid model.

Hensch recommended that these grades were changed from fully in-person to a hybrid model that lines up with the other grades.

Hensch explained his reasoning, stating that it was to “align the families and to potentially limit the amount of interactions within the schools.” Later in the meeting, he further explained his reasoning behind “aligning families,” noting that if a family has a second grader and a fourth grader at one of the elementary schools, it would eliminate the possibility for the families to be on different schedules for each of their children.

School committee member Susan Bell asked about the reasoning behind having kindergarten through grade 2 listed as in person in the hybrid model, as it was her understanding that the rationale for this was to “reduce the need for any type of synchronous learning with that age group, because it’s somewhat problematic.”

Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea stated that yes, one of the reasons the kindergarten through second grade model was proposed the way it was, was because of the synchronous learning being a factor. “Were we to go to a hybrid model, I’m sure our educators would embrace that and would be prepared to follow the expectations and requirements that we’re looking at on a [grade] 3-12 basis,” O’Shea said.

Blueberry Hill Principal Amy Stec stated that she has a schedule proposed for the hybrid model that aligns kindergarten through second grade with grades 3-12, however there would be synchronous requirements for teachers that the families “would need to ensure children work with, show up and be prepared for those responsibilities.” Stec added, “They would have to have the same learning expectations as the other kids.”

Bell added that this might be challenging for families, especially for children who have parents who work during the normal school day. “I’m just trying to consider all of the options as we go forward, and while I’m in agreement that a partial exposure is better than a full exposure for K-2, there’s those pieces, definitely, to consider,” Bell said.

School Committee Vice Chair Bronwyn Monahan spoke in favor of Hensch’s motion to amend the hybrid model, citing that there isn’t a mandate for students in kindergarten and first grade grade to wear a mask, which she felt was “understandable.” With that said, she noted     “The idea of 20 students in some of those grades, or 15 to 20 is a lot of kindergarten or first or second graders is a lot of kids in one classroom at the same time,” not wearing masks, she stated. Furthermore, she added that she felt adding these grades to the hybrid model instead of fully in person will still give them the opportunity to have face to face interactions but in smaller groups that can limit exposure by 50 percent.

When the motion for the amendment for grades kindergarten through two to be moved to align with other grades within the hybrid model occurred, all seven school committee members voted in favor of the amendment.

Several individuals aside from the committee members, superintendent, and administrators were present at the meeting, including Longmeadow Health Director Beverly Hirschhorn and Longmeadow Fire Chief and Emergency Manager John Dearborn. Both offered insight to the committee as to how they felt a reopening should occur in Longmeadow.

Hirschhorn explained to the committee that though some area towns are “selecting a metric” that would warrant school closure, she said she attended the meeting in the “advisory capacity to tell you Mass. DPH [Department of Public Health] has not come up with a metric for closure for school.” She continued to explain that there is “no agreed upon metric for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Hirschhorn noted that there is another metric that discusses cases per hundred thousand. She stated this was “particularly challenging for Longmeadow” because the staff for the town from “a variety of places.”

Hirschhon added, “A metric that you may choose for Longmeadow residents may not be appropriate for the area that you draw your staff from.”

She shared, “I do want to assure you that when we look at cases, we look at them very thoroughly,” and added that the committee and superintendent would be in contact with herself and Dearborn to keep them apprised of transmissions of COVID-19 in town.

School committee member Jamie Hensch asked Hirschhorn about a metric he saw in Amherst. Hirschhorn stated that she saw the metric he was referencing in an article in the New York Times, but because of the power outage, there was no way for her to research on her computer prior to the meeting.

“It’s not coming from the CDC, it’s certainly not coming from Mass. DPH. These are people’s ideas,” she said.

Hirshhorn then reflected back to roughly ten years prior when H1N1 was happening. “On an average winter day in the school, you would expect an absenteeism rate of something like 7, 8 percent on any day of the week when flu season is going on,” she explained, that at that time, the metric for closure was whether this was a workable percentage for students or faculty available to teach at that time. “I don’t have it [a metric for school closure due to the virus] because no one has it, these are ideas that are being bounced around now,” she said.

At this time, Dearborn jumped in on the call, explaining that since March, the town’s positivity rate for COVID-19 has been discussed every day. At the time of the meeting, the town had a 2.16 percent positivity rate. With that said, he added, that if they took out testing at the town’s nursing homes, the positivity rate goes down to .86 percent.

Dearborn then explained that he was “comfortable” with the plan to return to school with a hybrid model. He stated that he is a parent, and he “would be comfortable sending [his] child back to school in this environment.”

School Committee member Susan Bell explained that there were people watching the meeting from home who could be saying no matter what decision the School Committee makes, they would not be sending their children to LPS and would be opting into a remote model. She explained a parent may choose to keep their child home due to a child having compromised health or if the student or a family member could be at a greater risk for having complications if they developed COVID-19.

O’Shea responded to Bell, explaining that students who opt into staying fully remote as part of “Cohort C,” and are in middle school or high school would be through the Edgenuity software, which involves students “taking individual courses on a standalone basis,” he said.

O’Shea explained further, “It would be self-paced, self-directed learning experience for kids. Participation would be monitored by LPS staff ... if [students] were doing that, it would largely be an independent experience. That might be a preferred experience for students and families.”

O’Shea also noted that the state is looking into a statewide learning platform, which would “potentially” be available for students in K-12, though they didn’t have the details of that platform at the time of the meeting.

When it came time to vote on entering into the hybrid plan presented by O’Shea, there was a roll call vote, with School Committee members Nicole Choiniere, Gianna Allentuck, Susan Bell and Kevin Shea voting against the plan, and Vice Chair Bronwyn Monahan, Chair Ryan Kelly and member Jamie Hensch voting for the plan. The hybrid model did not pass.

Shea then moved that the committee reopen in a remote-only fashion, and the committee continued to discuss this option.     Allentuck asked if this included the possibility of phasing in, “in a timely manner,” small groups of students.

Monahan then amended Shea’s motion to start the school year on Sept. 14 remotely with a phased-in approach that had certain dates for each group of students that would be phased in.

The committee discussed phase-in dates, with kindergarteners through fifth graders phasing into the hybrid model on Sept. 21, grades six through eight phasing into a hybrid model on Sept. 29, and grades nine through 12 phasing into a hybrid model on Oct. 5. Students will begin the school year on Sept. 14 remotely, with the exception of Pre-K students and students with intensive needs beginning the year in person. All committee members voted to pass the remote start with phased-in hybrid model except for Hensch.

The next meeting of the Longmeadow School Committee is scheduled for Aug. 18 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is live streamed on Longmeadow TV’s Facebook page for residents who are interested in listening into the discussion.

For those interested in viewing the Aug. 6 meeting, it can be watched at Longmeadow TV’s YouTube channel at the following link: https://youtu.be/MYWTq5st4LE

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