Northampton School Committee votes 8-2 for phased-in hybrid learning 

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the end of a previously scheduled half day.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/23/2020 1:51:56 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton School Committee voted Thursday night to enact a phased-in hybrid approach to instruction, which will bring the district’s youngest students into hybrid learning beginning in mid-November and progress until all students have returned on a hybrid basis in February.

Under the plan presented by Superintendent John Provost, students in preschool through first grade will return for hybrid learning beginning Nov. 12, with additional grades phased in until all students have returned on a hybrid basis by Feb. 22.  Due to an amendment passed at the meeting requiring further conversations with families, these days may be pushed forward by up to a week, according to Provost.

The School Committee meeting, which ran for nearly 6½ hours, aired extensive public comment from parents, teachers, students and city residents with varying opinions on whether the district should transition to hybrid learning or remain all-remote.

During the meeting, Provost said that while the hybrid plan is not perfect and does pose the risk of COVID-19 transmission in school, remote learning cannot fulfill the needs of all students.

“It’s likely that many of us will fall back into social behaviors we remember from pre-COVID days, and it’s likely that we’ll all pay a price for that,” Provost said.

But, he added, “learning is a social process ... technology can act as a surrogate for the company of others, but it’s not the same.”

Provost also expressed concerns that remote learning will not allow younger students to learn skills needed at their optimal developmental time frames.

“If you accept that we have to learn to live with COVID, that learning is a social process, and that the early years are the time of optimal cognitive growth, it makes perfect sense to begin the transition to hybrid learning with a focus on young learners,” Provost said.

The plan was also recommended by the Joint Labor-Management Committee, which includes representation from the Northampton Association of School Employees, Northampton Health Department, the school physician and a School Committee member.

The School Committee extensively deliberated on how to keep remote learning an option for families who do not want their children to return to school buildings while ensuring that they have fair access to educational opportunities.

The committee passed an amendment stating that in addition to approving the plan, the district will reach out to families who prefer remote learning and determine whether they could like to return under the hybrid model. Based on numbers, the district will create a remote learning plan and allow families to choose which model best suits their needs.

The district is asking families of elementary school students to make their selection by Oct. 30, and families of middle and high school students to decide by Nov. 6.

The amended motion passed with eight in favor and two against.

Under the tentative schedule, students in preschool through first grade tentatively return on Nov. 12, followed by grades 2 and 3 will follow on Nov. 30. The next phase will bring fourth and fifth graders back for hybrid learning beginning Dec. 14, and sixth graders will return Jan. 4.

Seventh and eighth graders will return for hybrid learning Feb. 1, while ninth graders will have a two-day orientation just before February break, which runs from Feb. 15 through Feb. 20.

After the February break, all grades will return on a hybrid basis beginning Feb. 22.

Elementary school students will be divided into two groups, with one group meeting for in-person learning on Monday and Tuesday and the other group meeting for in-person learning on Thursday and Friday.

At the middle school level, the two cohorts of students alternate between in-person and remote instruction every other day.

High school students will be broken into three groups, which will each meet once per week on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Students will learn remotely on off days.


Mixed opinions

Reopening plans for the city’s public schools have divided residents, students and officials. In a survey administered to students, caregivers and staff, which received over 2,100 responses, 38.3% of respondents said that the schools should transition to a hybrid model consisting of two days of in-person learning each week, while 40.2% were opposed to hybrid learning, and 21.6% were unsure.

During the public comment period, which ran for almost three hours, community members expressed a range of opinions.

Lucy Braudis, a ninth grader at Northampton High School, advocated for the district to continue with a remote approach. Braudis said that she would choose to stay remote so that she can continue seeing a higher-risk family member and expressed concerns that the hybrid model would create inequities for remote learners.

Additionally, Braudis said, students who have the highest need for in-person learning are already being accommodated, referring to students with demonstrated need who have already been allowed back for in-person learning.

“The students who are most in need of being at school have that ability, have that choice,” Braudis said, “and it’s working for them, but that wouldn’t work for me.”

Braudis added that social interactions at school would be more difficult due to fears of virus transmission.

“That’s just not a way to go to school,” Braudis added.

Some participants, such as July Siebecker, said that while the intial shutdown in March was justified due to the dangers posed by a novel virus, a better understanding of COVID-19 and safety protocols may justify at least partial return to in-person learning. Siebecker, a parent, said that she had indicated in the survey that she was unsure as to whether students should return in a hybrid model, but has since decided she would like to see some in-person learning resume.

“We need to remember that it’s not going away soon,” Siebecker said of the pandemic. “We need to stop this mentality of hunkering down until it passes, because we’re not just taking it to the end of the year.

But Siebecker also wants assurance that ventilation in all rooms will be safe and that remote students will not be at a disadvantage.

“I want to hear more hybrid thinking,” she said, adding that her children as “socially starving” and that the district may have pushed off hybrid learning for too long.

Jarrett Krosoczka, parent and Florence resident, said that the risks associated with COVID-19 warrant staying remote.

““We only have just been getting started,” he said. “We need to continue to give this a try and work hard, because it will save lives.”

Saharra Pensivy, a resident and parent, advocated strongly for a return to school. Her six-year-old has difficulty learning from a computer and struggles emotionally, she said, but does not qualify for the higher needs populations that are currently allowed to attend school in person.

“She’s not getting the education she deserves,” Pensivy said. “She’s not getting the help that she needs.”

Additionally, she added, working parents have difficulty supporting their children.

“They can’t do this on their own,” Pensivy said of the students, “and for those of us who work from home, we can’t be helping them all day long to address those issues.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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