HWRSD discusses student engagement and plans to return in the fall

June 10, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) Superintendent Al Ganem told the school committee that the district’s schools vary in the levels of student engagement in remote learning.

For example, Director of Curriculum - Secondary John Derosia said only 75 percent of high school students are passing, while levels at Wilbraham Middle School (WMS) are at 95 percent, with only 30 students not participating.

Guidance Counselor Susan Spafford explained how the engagement has been working at WMS. Teachers make an attempt to reach out to students and their families. If there is still no engagement, a plan is made to reach out in a way that is tailored to each child or family. Once a connection has been made, an engagement structure and or schedule is developed for the individual student.

Spafford said many of the students she deals with are “highly anxious.” Some families have experienced COVID-19 cases and others have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic.

“We’re facing a lot of challenges,” as a district, Spafford said.

When asked by School Committee Chair Patrick Kiernan, Ganem said that engagement is contingent to some extent on grade level and that the middle-schoolers are less engaged than elementary-aged students.

Moving on to the topic of returning to school in the fall, Ganem reported that in a recent conference call Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley had said schools could return in the fall with a staggered schedule and use a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning.

Ganem explained that the model would have half of the students in the classroom one week and the other half, the next week. On the off-weeks, students would follow along with the coursework via remote learning. Derosia said that remote learning in the fall it will be “much more structured.”

When on campus, safety precautions would be adhered to including wearing masks, taking temperatures and social distancing.

Ganem noted that while this model is one that is being explored, it is not the final or official plan from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which should be announced in mid-June.

He noted that comments and suggestions for the format school should take in the fall can be directed to the state committee charged with hashing out the plan, the Return to School Working Group (RTSWG), at rtswg@mass.gov.

Kiernan said there is not a great representation of schools in the RTSWG. Ganem agreed, saying the commissioner had selected the members of the group. School Committee Member William Bontempi called it “appalling” that no one from the private sector medical community was involved with the group, considering its purpose is to find a way to best limit the spread COVID-19.

Bontempi also asked if the state had considered how having half of the student body home will affect child care services, especially for elementary age students.

Kiernan noted that the model will require spending for technology and safety equipment, but Ganem said so far no funding had been earmarked for those expenses. The district recently struggled with its FY21 budget due to rising state-mandated costs and lower levels of state-aid in the wake of the pandemic.

School Committee Member Heather Zanetti broached the subject of whether wearing masks is having an emotional social effect on kids. No one present had an answer.

Kiernan followed up by asking whether DESE can “compel” districts to follow the model. Ganem said Riley had made it clear that he wanted every district to follow the guidelines DESE eventually hands down.

The district will be sending out questionnaires about whether students plan to physically return to school and whether or not they intend to ride the bus when they do return.

HWRSD will hold a virtual field day on June 15, encouraging kids to take part in activities individually which would otherwise have been done by the student body together.

Placement testing will be conducted for students in grades kindergarten through eight the next day on June 16 through the IXL program. These assessments will help schools determine the students’ academic achievement and readiness ahead of the fall semester.

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