After numerous summertime meetings and extensive debate, all four school committees – Halifax, Kingston, Plympton, and Silver Lake Regional – have all made decisions regarding their reopening plans for the fall. All but Plympton have chosen the same hybrid approach and model. Plympton plans to begin with what they are referring to as “a phased-in hybrid approach” where most students will begin remotely at least for the first several weeks.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) required school districts to submit a preliminary plan for full remote, full in-person learning with 3 ft or 6 ft of physical distancing, and a hybrid of the two on July 31. Schools have been told that they need to be able to easily move from one mode to another should circumstances necessitate a change.
DESE has released an abundance of oft-changing guidance regarding reopening. It should be noted that school districts can elect to enact policies with stricter safety requirements than what is found in DESE’s guidance but cannot mandate anything less stringent.
Included amongst the state’s guidance is a mandatory minimum of 3 feet of physical distancing between occupants wearing masks with 6 feet being preferred. There is no maximum number of students per class as it will depend on the size of the rooms. The school can fit as many students as space will allow while still meeting the selected distancing requirement. While DESE has allowed for 3 ft (from seat edge to seat edge) when wearing masks and facing the same direction, many districts have elected to insist upon a minimum of 6 ft while still others have gone with something in between such as 4 ½ feet. Students and staff are required to maintain 6 ft of distance whenever masks cannot be worn such as lunch periods or breaks. DESE’s guidelines state a “preference” for students not wearing masks to not face one another.
Per the state’s guidelines, masks or face coverings are required for Grades 2 and up and strongly encouraged for those in preschool, kindergarten, and Grade 1. Masks must be worn on school buses regardless of age. Some districts, such as Whitman-Hanson, are requiring masks be worn even at the preschool, kindergarten, and Grade 1 levels. Exceptions must be made for those who are unable to wear a mask due to health or safety factors.
Under DESE’s guidance, schools are required to provide a remote option for students who cannot or choose not to attend school in-person. A frequent refrain heard during many meetings this summer has been that the remote education that will be offered this coming school year will not be the same remote education that was offered in spring. Amongst other changes, the state has required that attendance and participation is tracked and that a policy for issuing grades is employed.
All four school committees in Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton assessed that a full, in-person return to school is not feasible due to operational, fiscal, and safety constraints. The schools don’t have the space or staff necessary to bring all students back in person while also adhering to the physical distancing requirements. Additionally, there isn’t enough money in the budgets to be able to hire more staff to accommodate the smaller class sizes even if the space was available.
Another factor preventing a full, in-person return to school is transportation. With current physical distancing requirements, buses are limited to one-third of their usual capacity. Silver Lake investigated the cost of adding either additional bus runs or additional buses and found them to be prohibitive. Additionally, bus runs are an average of an hour long so additional bus runs could potentially mean needing to negotiate an extended school day. Even with the hybrid approach, the school will need as many caregivers as are able to transport their students to and from school. Windows and roof hatches will be kept open to the extent possible to increase ventilation. Only students from the same households will be allowed to sit together on a bench.
The hybrid approach that will be employed at Halifax Elementary, Kingston Elementary, Silver Lake Regional Middle School, and Silver Lake Regional High School will be a combination of in-person learning at 6 ft two days a week and remote learning 3 days a week for most students. There will be four cohorts of students. Cohorts A and B will attend school on opposite schedules. Cohort A will attend school in-person on Monday and Tuesday and be remote on Wednesday through Friday. Cohort B will be remote Monday through Wednesday and attend school in person on Thursday and Friday. Cohort C will be those students electing for 100 percent remote education. Cohort D will include high needs learners that will attend school in person four days a week. Not all students on an IEP will qualify for Cohort D. Qualifying for Cohort D does not mean you will have to attend school in-person all four days (or even at all) but rather that the choice to do so is there. Wednesday will be a remote learning day for all learners.
Under the hybrid plan, core subject areas will be prioritized for in-person learning as will some AP and CTE programs. Wellness, art, music, and other electives will likely be offered remotely.
In several of the school committee meetings, members have inquired as to whether Cohorts A and B will have contact with Cohort D during their in-person days and were told that they would. This was of concern to some as it reduces the benefits of the hybrid model to just the literal physical distancing that can be achieved through smaller class sizes while failing to eliminate possible cross contamination amongst cohorts.
All public schools in Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton are implementing facilities changes to improve safety. Efforts are being taken to minimize the use of recirculated air. No classrooms will be used that do not have working windows and adequate HVAC. Heightened cleaning and disinfecting, particularly of high touch areas, will be implemented. All schools will now be equipped with hospital-grade electrostatic sprayers as well.
Despite the best laid plans, everything is always subject to change as circumstances surrounding the pandemic change. The state also holds the authority to mandate full remote learning at any time.