Northampton School Committee adopts hybrid plan for reopening

  • Northampton High School FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 6:52:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Elementary school students would get two days of in-person school each week this fall, and if it’s safe, they could ramp up to four days each week.

That’s under a “hybrid model” for city schools — meaning all students get some instruction remotely and some in person — that the School Committee approved earlier this week in a 6-hour meeting about the hybrid plan.

But, the hybrid model is not necessarily how school will begin this year. Massachusetts schools 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 by the end of July. The committee will vote in August on which plan will be used to start the school year, and Superintendent John Provost has said the district will need to be flexible and shift between models during the year.

In the approved model, each week, elementary school students would go to school in person two days and learn remotely three days “until health and safety metrics” allow students to attend four days of in-person school each week. Metrics include looking at the case count and deaths in the area, which Provost reviews three times a week with the city Health Department, he told the Gazette.

Middle school students would be phased into in-person learning over a six-week period, and students not yet phased in would do all their learning remotely. Students would be broken into two groups, one that would go to school on Mondays and Tuesdays and another that would go to school Thursdays and Fridays. At the end of the phase-in, there would be at most about 68% of students in the building at once.

High school students would be phased into in-person school over a seven-week period, and students would learn each day remotely while waiting to be phased into in-person school. They would be broken into three groups, and each day, one group would do in-person learning, while the other two would be remote. When fully ramped up, around 67% of students would be in the building at once.

For all schools, “percentages of students attending school will not increase without considering safety metrics,” the committee decided. Students with disabilities, in the foster care system, experiencing homelessness, learning English, or those without an internet connection would be able to come in every day if they or their parents choose to, Provost told the Gazette.

All committee members voted to pass the plan except for Mayor David Narkewicz.

Members voted after two possible hybrid plans were presented — one from Provost and one from the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE), the union that represents school staff — and the group used parts of both proposals in the approved model.

Process questioned

Narkewicz was in the minority that voted for the Provost plan, and he said that his vote against the final plan was about process, and that he wanted to support the process that the superintendent had engaged in.

“I didn’t really support the process by which we were making this critical decision,” he said.

Andrea Egitto, president of NASE, presented a possible hybrid model to use if it’s safe to return to school in person. The plan was created with the Massachusetts Teachers Association and other K-12 education unions. For all schools, students would get two days of in-person learning a week and have remote learning the other days. A major part of the plan includes two phases at the start of the year, one for teachers to do planning for the year and another for teachers to meet with students and families to talk about their needs, from scheduling to technology.

Educators need time to prepare, Egitto said. In the spring, there was no time to plan for remote learning, and teachers were “thrust into it,” she said. “Remote learning in the spring was crisis learning.”

Eighty-eight percent of union members surveyed approved the plan, Egitto said, and those who didn’t “were basically people that are feeling it’s unsafe to be in buildings at this point and time.” Any staff member who wants to should be able to work remotely this year, Egitto said.

The hybrid model Provost presented would phase in elementary students until 100% are at school in-person each day, which the committee did not approve. Egitto later said NASE does not feel having all elementary students at school each day is safe.

His middle and high school plan is very similar to what the committee approved — two days of in-person learning for middle school students and in-person learning every third day for high school students.

In his plan, high school students who opt out of in-person learning would use an online program, Edgenuity, for classes.

A number of committee members said they did not like the idea of Edgenuity. “I have real concerns about Edgenuity and the inequity we’re creating by telling students, ‘You can either put your health and risk and go to class or you can have subpar education,’” said member Dina Levi. The committee voted that the plan for high school students who opt to be remote “include as much direct learning from NHS teachers as possible.”

The district has said that families can opt out of in-person learning, and Provost said Tuesday night it will be asking families to make a “good faith commitment” to decide if they don’t want their kids to come in person. Families can change their minds, he said, but “what we can’t work with is the decision changing on a weekly basis.”

Provost told the Gazette he is setting up town hall meetings, one for each school, in which parents can get more information and ask questions about the coming year. The district would not ask for a commitment until after those town halls, he said.

Public weighs in

Parents, caregivers and teachers spoke in the public comment period about returning to schools. Remote learning was difficult for a Ryan Road parent whose child has special needs. After a while, “She could not handle Zoom anymore,” the parent said of her daughter. “She would run away. She would sit far away. She would do anything but focus.”

The parent added, “I just think there are some kids who cannot do online learning.”

Going back to school in person worries Dinah Mack, a teacher at JFK Middle School. “It’s just really concerning as a teacher of 15 years in this district, as a member of the community who just loves my colleagues, loves this community, to be looking at this conversion without us all acknowledging that people will be gravely ill and people might die if we open our school buildings. And, really, the acceptable number of student deaths to COVID needs to be zero, and the acceptable number of educators and staff deaths to COVID needs to be zero.”

Michelle Sullivan, a Ward 7 parent, worried that families may leave the district. “I’m really concerned with the amount of people who are exploring homeschooling or online charter schools as an option,” she said. “I’m concerned we’re going to hemorrhage students and the money that goes with them.”

Liz Boughan, a teacher at Leeds Elementary and a parent, echoed Sullivan and emphasized the need for the option for families to be fully remote, which the district has said will be possible. “All of my Facebook parenting groups are flooded with people talking about homeschooling, and I’m really concerned we’re going to experience some white flight as a result of this,” she said. She added that parents are anxious and need more communication from the district. “The silence is starting to feel ominous.”

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


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