By Jean Perry, Neighb News Correspondent
A survey sent to parents to gauge their comfort of sending their kids back to school has provided the Fairhaven School District with the data it needs to begin planning for three different learning models and study the feasibility of safely reopening schools for in-person learning as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
Parents were asked whether they prefer in-person learning, remote learning, or favor a hybrid of the two.
There were roughly 1,500 responses representing about 75% of parents. The results are split: Half said they would send their kids to school full time, while 32.7% prefer a hybrid; 16.9% want to continue with remote learning.
The Fairhaven School Committee on 7/22 reviewed the results and heard Superintendent Robert Baldwin explain how the district is working on a plan for three separate learning models mandated by the state and due 8/10.
The survey gave a sense of direction as the district develops an effective remote learning platform and analyzes possible class sizes and staff numbers.
Assistant Superintendent Tara Kohler called the results “the very beginning of the puzzle,” and said she hopes parents and school staff will remain patient as the district develops plans for the models.
Dr. Baldwin said he was thrilled to see so many attending the meeting remotely via Zoom, 109 attendees, then he gave a presentation on steps the district is taking to meet state-mandated milestones and reopen schools safely.
“There are many risks,” Dr. Baldwin said, but the risks of kids not being in school, the loss of learning and social opportunities and lack of access to essential services such as breakfast and lunch, among other things, are “real issues and those are issues that take place.”
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) guidelines for reopening include facemasks, desk spacing of at least three feet, and scheduled mask and hand washing breaks.
Today, all Fairhaven schools are being cleared of non-essential equipment and clutter to assess how many students can be accommodated Parent survey data is being used to determine if desks can be placed close to six feet apart. The data also helps determine how much staff is needed to reach a maximum 1:20 student ratio.
Dr. Baldwin said facts and science would drive how schools are laid out to welcome students back along with guidance from health and safety experts.
“Medical, medical, medical, it’s all medical-based because it’s all about safety,” said Dr. Baldwin.” He then launched an overview of the three learning models under development.
The in-person model “is not what we left on March 12,” said Dr. Baldwin. “It is impossible to return to school the way we left it right now.”
He said one significant change would be how students are bussed to school.
State transportation guidelines have determined a capacity of 30% on busses as a safe maximum, which would require more busses and possibly a staggered arrival and dismissal. For example, Dr. Baldwin said, some students might arrive via bus at 8:30 a.m. and be dismissed at 2:00 p.m., and another group arriving at 9:30 with a 3:00 dismissal.
Core subjects would be the priority, as scheduling mask and hygiene breaks would take up considerable time, and ensuring social distancing inside classrooms means all school spaces must be utilized for those crucial core subjects.
For the hybrid model, Dr. Baldwin suggested Fairhaven would likely adopt the one-week in-school/one week remote learning schedule.
“We’re just filtering through all of this,” said Dr. Baldwin. “None of these decisions are final, not one.”
Dr. Baldwin emphasized that remote learning for the 2020-2021 school year would not resemble what students were accustomed to when school broke for the summer.
As Ms. Kohler described it: “It would look like a full school day from home [with] evidence-based… learning, not just we’re all on a Zoom call listening to a teacher.”
Dr. Baldwin reassured the district’s educators that they would not be unfairly burdened with the task of providing remote learning in addition to in-person learning.
“We would never ask our educators to teach a full load for an entire day and then say, ‘By the way, you’re doing a remote learning piece at the same time.’”
He said teachers would be assigned either one or the other.
The district is considering various remote-learning platforms, and Dr. Baldwin hopes Fairhaven will adopt one uniform platform for all students; however, he added, “Parents will have the right to say ‘Thank you for showing me all this, but I’m not coming.’ That is a parental right.”
He then broke down how elementary, middle, and high school scenarios could look as the district organizes the safe return of students with an emphasis on early childhood students and students that receive special education services.
“Pre-school may be a priority to make sure all kids come back,” he said, as well as students educated in the substantially separate classroom environment. The district would make separate decisions for all grades, ensuring first that enough staff is available. Some primary grades will require an additional teacher to lower class sizes.
Although the budget presented to Town Meeting on 7/25 was a level-funded one, a future budget would include additional staff.
A second parent survey will drive that budget, said Dr. Baldwin.
At the middle school, Dr. Baldwin said they would likely need eight teachers per grade to address core subjects. Grade 6, he said, would likely resemble an elementary school setting while grades 7 and 8 would be confined to their respective wings.
“So, we can possibly pull this off,” he said shifting his attention to funding sources. If the district can demonstrate the need, legislation would make “tough decisions” to provide funding, and the district has applied for a remote learning grant, as well.
School Committee member Stasia Powers asked: “Do we expect a huge change in the high school as well?”
Dr. Baldwin said it depends on how many students attend in-person and hybrid learning.
“A high school would have to be [a cohort-based model] based on the rules of the game,” said Dr. Baldwin. “It’s all core content area and we would have to take a look at what that is. It’s in the queue with everything else.”
“To me, it just boggles the mind,” said Ms. Powers. “It’s a huge task and I can’t imagine…. This whole puzzle, this whole process….”
“We’re trying across the board to get as many kids back as we can,” Dr. Baldwin said, and emphasized the importance of funding to make in-person learning possible.
“We’re doing this without any certainty in our budget,” said Dr. Baldwin turning to the feasibility study.
“They [DESE] are asking us to do magic without any magic tricks.” He continued, “This is all one-time money to get us through a one-time, we hope, pandemic.”
School Committee member Donna McKenna wondered if parents ultimately change their minds and opt to send their kids back to school, what would the district do then?
“We are not in our brains thinking that [the survey is] a commitment,” said Dr. Baldwin.
The survey gave an indication of what parents were thinking at that moment in time and what their intentions are, he said. He added, however, that the committee could possibly adopt a policy that parents would have to commit to their responses in a second survey the district will send out in the coming weeks, but he was unsure if that was allowed.
Three weeks into the school year, he said, if parents decided that the circumstances were favorable for in-person learning, “I really don’t know if we have any right to say ‘No, you can’t come back,’ but they (DESE) are talking about that.”
He added, “We have to make our decisions based on [the information] people give us.”
Dr. Baldwin displayed a photo of an East Fairhaven School classroom with desks spaced 5.4 feet apart and said parents might respond favorably to in-school learning if offered the visual.
“We need to flush out what the hybrid people are thinking,” said Dr. Baldwin, suggesting, “If this is what it looks like … are you coming back or not?
“[The photo] allows the parent to see what it would really look like to make that determination,” he said. “The magic number here … is to get as close to [6 feet] as possible.” Between 4.4-6 feet, he said, “This is really where we want to be.”
Still, state guidelines allow for a 3-foot minimum desk placement.
Currently, Dr. Baldwin said, “Every room has everything out of it.”
Computer rooms no longer contain computers, for example, and art rooms no longer resemble art rooms.
“Every piece of real estate is precious and every room is empty and every room will be filled to the best of our capacity to get as [many students] back in as we can,” he stated. “We won’t order more [teachers] than we have classrooms.”
Dr. Baldwin said he met with all Fairhaven principals earlier in the day and asked them to devise schedules that will not alter teachers’ workdays but would provide time for planning. He requested staggered bus schedules across the board.
“Can we pull this off? We don’t know,” said Dr. Baldwin, “but we’re trying so hard to see what we can and can’t do. There’s a lot of decisions coming that need to happen.”
Dr. Baldwin also discussed the possibility of reducing the school year days, which is usually 180. Since the meeting, the state has mandated that all schools start 10 days later, and reduce the days to 170.
All early release days have been eliminated from the school calendar.
“The safety of our children is paramount to all of this, and our staff,” said School Committee member Pam Kuechler. “Patience and grace during all of this is the critical thing…. Obviously, this is a crisis that we’re all in.”
“If we can get kids in the rooms and staff back to work then that’s the plan and that’s what were going to do because the best place for kids is in school,” Chairpeson Brian Munroe. “Everything will be done under the guise of being as safe as possible.
“Nothing right now is 100% certain,” he said. “Once we can say what we’re really doing then we’re going to do it…. It may fail miserably, but what an … opportunity to provide some leadership … because there’s a void in leadership these days. I don’t want to be national and I don’t want to be political. I want to be Fairhaven. Why can’t we be that?”
In another matter, the SC appointed Jennifer Castanhinha to the position of director of student services. She will replace Diane Sullivan who is leaving the position in August.
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