School committee split on back-to-school plan

Final vote to come on August 4

Abington School Committee members are split on the best way to resume classes in September, with a final decision due within days.

As part of an informal poll taken at the end of Wednesday’s lengthy school committee meeting, committee Chairwoman Wendy Happel and committee member Chris Coyle said they want students to return to school full time. Members Lisa Augusta and Danielle Grafton prefer a hybrid model where students would split time between in-class learning and remote learning. And committee member Jackie Abrams said she feels remote learning would be the best model.  

The state Department of Early and Secondary Education is asking all public school districts to make a preliminary decision between the three reopening models by July 31 and then vote on a final decision in early August. The Abington School Committee currently is scheduled to meet again on August 4. 

What Abington school officials can agree on is that none of the three options in front of them are ideal.

Fully reopening schools during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic comes with dozens and dozens of pages of rules and mandates. Some of the guidelines include requiring students in grades 3 and above to wear masks while in class, classrooms stripped of non-essential materials such as play areas, social distancing requirements inside hallways and cafeterias, and advisories that some music, chorus, and physical education classes should only be held outdoors. 

Two surveys of Abington teachers and parents clearly showed that remote learning was the least popular of the three options. And the hybrid model means parents who work outside the home will be required to find childcare three days a week, with students still required to follow social distancing guidelines while in school. 

“The decision is going to be a highly unpopular one no matter the outcome,” Grafton said. 

It was the weight of these guidelines that drove some of the committee members’ decisions. 

Abrams, who teaches outside of Abington, said she felt many of the mandates contained in the state’s main guidance document were simply “unworkable.” 

“I can assure you, with that 17 years if experience [as a teacher] behind me, if this 81-page document wasn’t here in this way, I’d be voting for us to go back,” she said, adding that she felt the hybrid model would do more harm than good.

Augusta pointed to rising COVID case loads in many states, as well as a possible slight uptick in Massachusetts’ numbers in recent days, as signs that schools may be forced to close again this fall or winter.  

“At some point we’re going to be going full remote based on how the world is going,” she said. “The hybrid model will give kids an opportunity to have some in-person learning and some prep for a remote model, if that’s where we end up.” 

Grafton, who is also a teacher in a community outside of Abington, said much of a year’s success is set up in the first couple weeks of the school year. However, she couldn’t support returning full-time based on the information.

“Even if we only have student desks in the room, I believe we will deliver the next experience in person,” she said. 

Happel said based on her conversations in the community, she was supporting a full-time return to the classroom.

“Every person I’ve spoken with wants to see kids back at school,” she said. 

Coyle said he was concerned that it could take 45 minutes to safely enter and exit students in and out of school every day while adhering to social distancing guidelines. But ultimately keeping kids out of school was a worse choice then losing time while in school, he said. 

Abington Schools Superintendent Peter Schafer said he personally supported the hybrid model. His suggestion was to split classes up as evenly as possible, with one half attending school in person Monday and Tuesday, and then learning remotely Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. The other half would learn remotely Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and in person Thursday and Friday. All students would be home on Wednesdays, which would provide teachers prep time, and the ability to hold office hours and joint class meetings. 

Schafer pointed out during numerous points of the more than three-hour meeting that many of the proposed changes are subject to collective bargaining with the Abington Education Association. 

While the Abington School Committee was meeting Wednesday night, the Massachusetts Teachers Association – the state’s largest teacher’s union – voted to encourage all their local unions to push for remote learning at the start of the year. 

Steve Shannon, President of the Abington Education Association, told Abington News Thursday that the union would put out a statement in the coming days. 

“Although we are currently in talks to negotiate the impact of any of the three plans required of the District to submit to DESE, the (association) will be releasing a statement at some point before the vote of the School Committee on August 4th,” he said.

A survey filled out by more than 800 parents since last week found that 40 percent want their children back in school full time, and 39 percent preferred a hybrid model. In an earlier survey, 60 percent of parents said they wanted to go back full time, and 26 percent preferred a hybrid approach. 

Just 19 percent said they prefer their children learn remotely. 

Among faculty and staff, just 8 percent now support a full-time return to the classroom, down from 35 percent earlier.

A big concern Abington administrators have is around transportation. State guidelines require buses to operate at 33 percent of capacity, with only one student per bench.

“This means the eight buses will drop off students [at the Beaver Brook] and then go back out and pick up the remaining students that haven’t been picked up yet, and those students will get to school late,” Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Felicia Moschella explained.  

She said with every school district facing the same challenges, there simply won’t be enough buses and licensed drivers to double the amount of buses on Abington roadways.  

Under state law, school districts are required to provide bus transportation to students who live more than two miles away from their school building. In Abington, this amounts to 450 students. Another 850 students pay to take the school bus. 

Moschella said the school department needs to hear from families who are able to make alternative transportation arrangements.     

Moschella also said the the HVAC units at the middle/high school have been adjusted to bring in as much fresh air into the building as possible. At the Woodsdale and Beaver Brook, all the air units have been checked and are working 

If a hybrid model is ultimately adopted, school administrators said they are still deciding the best way to divide up classes. One priority would be keeping siblings on the same schedule. However, they would likely allow parents to request swapping groupings, particularly in order to best line up child care options. 

“And we hope we would get an equal number moving back and forth,” said Schafer. 

Schafer said school administrators had considered dividing classes up by neighborhoods, but that it likely wouldn’t be feasible. 

Schafer also said the district has looked into whether plexiglass dividers between desks would provide students and teachers some flexibility from the social distancing guidelines. However, the state issued guidance recently recommending against dividers, as they introduce another critical surface that would have to be routinely cleaned and disinfected. 

A number of parents have already notified the school district that intend to have their kids learn remotely to start the year, regardless of the committee’s decision. This is a different choice than homeschooling students, when parents withdraw their children from the school district and prepare a curriculum of their own. If Abington schools return full-time or in a hybrid model, these remote-learning students will remain Abington Public School students and be provided instruction while at home. However, at this time, Schafer didn’t know if the instruction would come from Abington teachers or from a state-coordinated program. 

Happel spent more than an hour bringing up questions emailed to her before and during the meeting. Not all the questions took a collaborative approach.

“Some of them aren’t very nice,” Happel said while passing over a couple emails.

Parents asked how students with disabilities would be impacted by the choices. 

Dr. James Robbins, the director of student services, said the district would prioritize in-person services for those students with complex disabilities, pre-kindergarten students with disabilities, and students with a combination of disabilities and other factors such as homelessness. 

“We’re not basing decisions on disability type, we’re basing it on the level of special education services they receive,” Robbins said. 

Happel was joined by a couple parents wondering why class lessons couldn’t be live-streamed to students at home.

“I would just really like to look into this options as we go forward,” she said. “If a student is having trouble, now they can go online and it’s math time and learn a little more.”

Schafer said there are several significant problems with live streaming, including privacy of students and teachers, bandwidth issues associated with school buildings transmitting multiple high-resolution live streams simultaneously, and equity issues for students lacking internet access at home. In addition, he said suppliers currently don’t have enough cameras and hardware to outfit every classroom. 

Abrams said she was particularly concerned with having classrooms steamed live.

“We don’t need the way every child behaves and learns broadcast into every home,” she said. 

Schafer also said teaching via live stream is not considered an educational best practice. 

“I don’t think any of this is a best teaching practice,” replied Happel. “We should test it out and shouldn’t just ignore this piece.” 

During remote learning this spring, teachers did not take attendance or grade assignments. Instead they provided what was classified as “feedback.” All students were advanced to the next grade.

In response to a parental question, Schafer said that would change if classes are again held remotely.

“It’s really about making sure, if we go to remote learning …. that there’s grading and greater accountability for everyone, for students and teachers and parents and administrators, and more of an ability to track what’s going on with the remote experience,” he said.

Under state guidelines, students would be required to keep their masks on during recess, even if held outdoors. One parent challenged this as a higher standard, considering kids aren’t currently being required to wear masks while playing sports such as baseball, lacrosse, and hockey. 

“We don’t have a choice,” Schafer said. “We’ve been given guidelines that are mandated…When we’re dealing with everyone else’s kids, we can’t choose between what rules we’re going to follow and which we aren’t.” 

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