Progress gradual on Northampton school reopening plans

  • Northampton High School

Staff Writer
Published: 7/14/2020 6:48:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — It’s not yet clear what school in Northampton will look like in the fall.

The district must submit three plans for reopening school — fully remote, fully in-person, and a combination of both — to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to Superintendent John Provost.

He presented a plan for a hybrid and fully in-person model at a School Committee meeting Thursday evening, but the plans were not approved. After discussion, members voted to table it to another meeting on July 21, and Provost said he will come back with updated plans.

In the hybrid model that Provost proposed, kindergarten would be half-day, elementary school students would have four days of in-person school, and secondary students would have some in-person instruction daily. High school students would be divided into two groups, each of which would spend part of the day at school, overlapping for several hours.

Although DESE allows for students to be as close as 3 feet apart, School Committee members were not comfortable with them being that close, and students will have 6 feet of social distance in all models, Provost said Thursday.

Twenty-nine tents would be used at all six schools to create more space for social distancing in the hybrid model. Costs for the tents, additional paraprofessionals to staff them and additional transporation would be $45,000 to $50,000 each week for the hybrid model, Provost told the committee. Tents are helpful for creating more space, but also come with logistical challenges like supplying them with electricity, and they won’t work in a rainstorm or in the winter, Provost said.

The full in-person model is similar to the hybrid model, except it would add more tents to the elementary schools.

School Committee members asked questions and expressed concerns, and Provost is now working on updated reopening plans.

The cost of the proposed hybrid model was one issue. “I understand we’re focused on safety and education, rightfully so,” said Ward 2 member Laura Fallon. “But when we talk about $50,000 a week plus almost a half a million dollars in Chromebooks for K-12, licenses and computer programs and then also the expenses for professional development, and we still don’t have a state budget. I am concerned. Can we afford this?”

A number of members said they would rather see more in-person instruction time for elementary school students in the hybrid model.

There were also worries about distancing.

“I don’t see how we can safely do this much face time. And I think the younger kids will struggle with more remote learning,” at-large member Susan Voss said, commenting on the hybrid plan.

She suggested starting with 25% capacity in the schools for a hybrid plan and then increasing that percentage if it goes well. “We need to step back, simplify, and start slow,” she said.

When asked about ventilation, Provost told the committee that every classroom will have working windows or the room won’t be used, and the district is working to get airflow tested in its buildings.

Plans for safe bathroom use — like limiting the number of people per bathroom — and how passing time in the high school will work have not been figured out, Provost told the committee.

In a previous proposal, the hybrid model prioritized elementary school students for in-person instruction and secondary students had more remote learning, Provost said. The next plan “will backtrack to something closer to one of our original proposals,” he said Tuesday.

For its remote learning plan, the district is purchasing 600 Chromebook laptop computers and is planning to do professional development to prepare teachers.

Providing flexibility

Some parents may decide not to send their children back to school in-person. Fewer than 10% of 650 Northampton parents and caregivers surveyed in June said they would not send their child back in person in the fall, according to Provost.

“The guidance that we’ve gotten from the Department of Education is that we need to provide flexibility for families that would like to attend remotely in the fall,” he said. How that will work has not yet been decided.

When asked if teachers and staff would be able to opt out of in-person school in the fall, he said: “We haven’t figured that out for the employees that would be coming back in the fall at this time.”

Negotiations over fall plans between the district and the Northampton Association of School Employees — the union that represents teachers, clerical workers, educational support professionals, and other employees — begin on Wednesday, Provost said.

In a survey of staff, Provost said that “the greatest area of concern had to do with issues of health and safety — staff concerns about contracting the virus themselves and/or bringing the virus home to their families.”

Among other issues, they were also worried about what would happen if a student tested positive, he said.

Some parents and educators spoke during the public comment period on Thursday evening about the developing reopening plans.

Jose Adastra, a father of two, said it was “an embarrassment” that school officials and parents were talking online about letting children back into the schools.

“We’re having a meeting online about letting our children come face to face.” Adastra added, “I would spend all my money, I would go into debt to prevent my children from meeting with other kids right now.”

Suzanne Strauss, a teacher at Northampton High School, said that remote learning was taxing. Her virtual class attendance was good but “getting people to do their work was a nightmare,” she said. But, she feels like the district was rushing to get back to school in person.

“I feel like none of the plans that were put in place seem that great,” she said. “I hate remote learning, but in some ways, I feel like it’s the only safe way to go at this point.”

Kate Fontaine, a teacher at NHS and a NASE leader, said union members “desperately want to be back in school with our kids.”

Safety “is incredibly important,” she said. “The other thing that is going to be incredibly important is flexibility, because a pandemic is unpredictable and we’re living in unprecedented times.

“We have to be prepared to have multiple plans that meet the needs of students, families, and staff members and we have to be prepared for those plans to change.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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