Split Southampton board sending kids back to school full time

  • Southampton William E. Norris School, 2019

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2020 8:50:11 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — The Southampton School Committee voted 3-2 Wednesday night to enact a phased return to full, in-person learning at William E. Norris Elementary School beginning on Nov. 9 for students in kindergarten and first grade. Under the plan, all grades will return to classrooms by the end of December.

The School Committee was largely divided on the issue, with alarm raised over a newly received report on the school’s heating and ventilation system, stating that the building has areas, including some classrooms and the library, with “little to no ventilation,” in addition to “other areas of concern.”

The building also cannot accommodate six feet of distance between all students in a full return of students. The approved plan calls for a minimum of 4½ feet of distancing between students and six feet of distancing where possible, which the district’s nurse leader and some committee members opposed.

Committee members in favor of the motion argued that data supports that schools are not primary drivers of COVID-19 spread, and that Southampton’s COVID-19 numbers are low enough to reopen safely. The meeting, held over Zoom, ran for nearly six hours and had more than 140 attendees at one point.

After kindergartners and first graders return on Nov. 9, the next phase will begin on Nov. 23 with second and third graders returning. Grades four and five will begin in-person learning on Dec. 7, and students in grade 6 will return on Dec. 21.

The School Committee will meet between each phase to discuss whether modifications are needed.

Most students currently attend school on a hybrid basis, with two cohorts rotating between two days of in-person learning and three days of remote instruction.

School Committee member Julianne Tauscher, who voted against the plan, expressed serious concerns with the HVAC report, calling it “reckless” to bring students back for full in-person learning at this time.

Tauscher also pointed to the onset of cold and flu season and the coming holiday season, when more families will be traveling and commingling, in opposing the return.

“As soon as this virus gets a foothold, it’s over,” Taushcer said. “It spreads like wildfire.”

Committee member Greg Bennett, who cast the other dissenting vote, advocated for the committee to continue with hybrid learning for four weeks while the district evaluates its data. Bennett, citing the building’s ventilation issues and the inability to provide six feet of distancing between students, said it was “ridiculous” to bring all students back under current conditions.

Stephanie Faas, the nurse leader and health education coordinator for Hampshire Regional School District, also voiced concerns with the fully in-person return, stating that six feet of distancing is for her “a non-negotiable mitigation factor” in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Numerous members of the Southampton Teachers Association urged the School Committee to halt the full return and continue with the hybrid approach due to safety concerns.

School Committee member Austin Rogers said that children’s mental health is suffering due to their limited in-person learning, and that his motion allows time for the School Committee to evaluate and make possible modifications between phases.

“This at least gives our kids a chance at something,” he said of the plan.

Rogers also argued that no students at the school have tested positive so far and cited reports that schools are generally not superspreaders.

All families have the option of remaining or switching into the remote model, according to School Committee Chairman Jon Lumbra.

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