The Halifax Elementary School Committee met on Tuesday, August 4 to discuss and vote through the comprehensive plan for reopening. The plan is due to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on August 10. They ended up delaying the vote, however, as they wished to have the results of the most recent survey before voting. Over 150 people were in attendance for the virtual meeting.
President of the Halifax Teacher’s Association, Stephen Ruisi, asked chair Gordon Andrews for permission to address the committee. Ruisi expressed concerns on behalf of the teachers that some members of the school committee had previously expressed a preference for a return to full, in-person learning in the fall. He said that an internal teacher survey conducted this past weekend indicated that not even one teacher was in support of full, in-person learning. He expressed dismay that 3 feet would be considered adequate social distancing in schools.
Daniel Beshers also asked to speak. He referred to a return to full, in-person learning as a naïve choice. Beshers referenced concerns recently shared by Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute regarding the current state of Massachusetts’ COVID response. Jha said, ““They’re heading in the wrong direction… I worry that a lot of people living in the Northeast think that we’re done with the pandemic.” Beshers also referred to students as the most precious members of our community noting that even if they were less likely to get ill from the virus, they could potentially spread it to family members and other members of the community.
Jennifer Carroll also elected to speak saying she was in favor of kids returning to school as much as possible. She called the remote learning that was offered in the spring “awful” and suggested that those that wish to return to in person schooling are allowed to do so while those wishing to stay fully remote are also accommodated. Ryan Adams also offered his thoughts saying that it was, in his opinion, inevitable that COVID comes to Halifax Elementary School. He said that full in-person learning is not the way to go.
Committee member Summer Schmaling also offered her thoughts which can best be summarized as a list of concerns over each of the three possible models. She said that she had responded to every member of the faculty or public that had taken the time to reach out to her and said she admired everyone for advocating for their children.
Andrews asked that during Superintendent Jill Proulx’s presentation, the discussion available in the chat area of the remote call be reserved for discussion of the school committee members. Proulx gave an overview of the preliminary plans submitted to DESE the previous week and shared aspects of the fully in-person plan, the fully remote plan, and the hybrid option. She said that the school committee must approve a comprehensive plan by August 10. That plan would still be subject to bargaining by the union as well as approval from the state. Proulx also noted that the Commissioner of education in Massachusetts has approved the use of 10 days for the safety training of teachers and other staff. This reduces the required number of school days from 180 to 170 days.
The comprehensive, hybrid plan is over 30 pages long and is based on hundreds of pages of guidance from DESE that continues to be issued every couple of days. Halifax Elementary School principal Kayne Beaudry shared a sample schedule. As has been mentioned in previous meetings and articles, the hybrid option would consist of four cohorts. Cohort A would attend school in person on Monday and Tuesday and be remote Wednesday through Friday while Cohort B would be remote Monday through Wednesday and attend school in person on Thursday and Friday. Cohort C would consist of those choosing to be full-time remote. Cohort D would be those students classified as high needs who would be eligible to attend school 4 days of the week. Wednesdays would be reserved as a fully remote day for all students in order to allow for deep cleaning of the building as well as teacher training. The schedules as shared by Beaudry were identical for both remote and in-person with the only difference being a Google Meet in the place of pickup and drop off. For Grades 4-6 who normally rotate classes, the teachers will rotate instead. Core requirements will be prioritized for in person learning while physical education, art, music, etc. will likely be taught remotely. Beaudry also told everyone that they had enough chromebooks in the district for each student to be guaranteed one.
Committee member Alex Meade inquired if Cohorts A and B would be sharing classroom space with Cohort D. Beaudry confirmed that that was the plan. Meade expressed concern that it seemed to narrow the benefit of the hybrid model as there was more potential for cross contamination amongst cohorts that way. If a positive case was discovered in any of Cohorts A, B, or D, they would all have potential exposure.
Committee member Alison Vance asked both Beaudry as well as assistant principal Brian DeSantes what mode of schooling would be their preference. Beaudry noted that all models have their strengths and weaknesses. “I see a lot of strength in the hybrid model; I think it would be a nice balance,” he said. He said that the remote portion of the plan would be more robust than what was seen in the spring. He also noted that based on social distancing guidelines, the school would need an additional 10 overflow classrooms to accommodate everyone for full time, in-person learning. Beaudry mentioned the lack of social and emotional support found in the fully remote option and said that he believes the hybrid model to the be most comprehensive option. DeSantes agreed with Beaudry’s assessment. Both laughed about their personal experiences with remote learning as they have a combined 7 children between them.
Schmaling asked for clarification that no one would be forced to send their children for in-person learning if their preference was to keep them remote full-time. The administration confirmed that the choice will be given and said they are factoring in 5 percent of the student population that will elect to be remote.
A myriad of other issues were also discussed. Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch said that schools will have plentiful supplies of masks for students and staff though the expectation is that the families will provide them for their children. Andrews asked if Halifax could enforce a policy requiring kindergarten and first grade to wear masks despite DESE saying they were only mandated for those in Grades 2 and above. The administration said that the school could create a policy that was more stringent than what was found in DESE’s language though they couldn’t make one that was less.
Another issue that arose regarding the youngest learners was the possibility of sending kindergarten students to school 4 days a week. While ideal, Lynch said that wouldn’t be practical. “There’s a set amount of in person learning you can execute and if you were to allocate that to kindergarten you would have to minimize it in other places,” he explained.
Despite not being able to answer all the questions asked by the public during Tuesday’s meeting, Andrews said that he didn’t want anyone to feel that they were being ignored. He told them that he had personally spent 60 hours over the last week working on issues pertaining to reopening. He encouraged everyone to reach out to the school committee members and acknowledged that everyone had valid concerns. The committee voted to hold off voting a comprehensive plan until Thursday evening’s meeting.