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School officials react to state directive for in-person learning

  • Hampshire Regional High School STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writers
Monday, March 22, 2021

Sometime this spring, all students throughout Massachusetts, from preschool through 12th grade, will have the opportunity to be back in school buildings on a full-time basis.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley issued a directive March 9 informing public school officials they must offer daily, in-person learning to elementary school students by April 5, middle school students by April 28, and high school students by an unspecified later date. Some districts are likely to see this as a significant challenge, while others should be able to make the change seamlessly.

One district expected to face difficulties is Amherst-Pelham, where all but the youngest and highest-needs students have been learning remotely for the most part since March 2020.

While the Amherst, Pelham and Regional school committees recently instructed Superintendent Michael Morris to plan for some in-person instruction for “all students who want it” by the end of April, Morris told the regional committee Tuesday that it will be difficult to meet Riley’s orders, saying “a solution is being forced on us.”

Because remote learning continues to be the only method of instruction for most high schoolers, Amherst Regional High School Principal Talib Sadiq said a survey will need to be sent to families to determine how many students will come back if in-person classes are offered.

Sadiq said two concerns he has are the general safety of repopulating the building, including structuring a schedule to avoid crowded hallways, and requiring teachers to teach students the same material in person and remotely at the same time. He’s uncertain the school has the technological capabilities for that, he said.

Sadiq also said he is unsure what sort of schedule could be created, especially if Riley gives schools only two weeks to develop a plan. It is likely, he said, that there would not be a guarantee every class could continue.

In the average classroom with 6 feet of separation, 16 students can fit, even though 20 students is the average high school class size, and several classes run at 25 students.

Discussion of the return to school came the same evening as a presentation of a modified block schedule for high school students that would be used in the fall.

Samantha Camera, a high school teacher who helped develop that schedule, said it would limit interactions among students and teachers, which could remain necessary if the pandemic continues. Camera said pivoting to full-time, in-person instruction for high schoolers this spring, especially if given just two weeks to do so, would be difficult.

In-person instruction at the elementary schools and the middle school will be less of a challenge, Morris said, observing that it is easier to add classroom teachers at the primary grades, and middle schoolers are already taught in teams.

Hampshire Regional

At the Hampshire Regional Schools, Superintendent Michael Sullivan said the directive from Riley won’t have a significant impact.

“At the middle and high school, we will be ready,” Sullivan said. “We have a plan to ramp up to have most kids in school full time.”

The majority of students in the school are in a hybrid format, spending two days a week in school, and only about 20% of students remain fully remote

Students at New Hingham Elementary in Chesterfield are already in the building four days a week. For the April 5 deadline, only William E. Norris Elementary in Southampton will have some challenges, Sullivan said, where some of the physical distancing of students would have to be reduced from 6 to 4 feet, though Sullivan said he understands there are different comfort levels among teachers and parents.

Northampton

Currently, the Northampton schools are in a hybrid model, and students at all grade levels have the option to come to school in person for part of the week.

‘Transitioning to a new learning mode for the final months of school won’t be simple or easy,” Superintendent John Provost said. But after a lot of changes in the past year, he said, “I have every confidence that we will be able to make this work.”

Andrea Egitto, president of the Northampton Association of School Employees, the union that represents teachers and school staff, said members are focused on protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.

“Our biggest concern is getting people vaccinated and making sure that we have a plan for our students who are not able to be in the building. And how we’re going to still meet their needs in an equitable way,” she said.

Children can’t be vaccinated yet, and some families will continue to keep their kids at home, she said.

“Who’s going to be caring for and educating those kids? And what about the equity there?” she said.

Provost said changes will have to be made to the remote-only model. “I think that the remote learning model will definitely have to change as we direct more resources toward in person learning.”

Currently, there is a remote-only class for each grade, which he expects to continue.

Egitto and members were happy that educators are now eligible for vaccinations. But, “it ended up being like the hunger games of thousands and thousands of educators trying to get appointments,” she said. “I have educators getting up at 4 in the morning trying to get on the CVS website so they can get an appointment.”