Hybrid model planned as District awaits further information from the state
Aug. 5, 2020
By Natasha Don
The special School Committee meeting continued on July 29 with what Committee Chair Kathryn Codianne described as “A one item agenda with multiple parts.” The item in question was the Fall 2020-2021 school reopening.
With the state now allowing schools to delay school openings up to 10 days for additional staff training, the official start date for the 2020/2021 school year will be Sept. 16, and as of right now the School Committee and District office have decided to move forward with plans for a hybrid model of both in-person and remote learning. While this model is still subject to change based on guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, district staff will plan for a hybrid learning model until instructed otherwise.
Program directors addressed the Committee with their updates and current plans for Athletics, Special Education, and Extended Learning.
Nashoba Director of Athletics Tania Rich was first to speak to the Committee. Like all other areas of education, school athletics are obligated to follow the instruction of their own supervisory organization. The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association (MIAA) is the governing body of school sports in the state.
Rich explained that in June of this year, the MIAA established a COVID-19 task force that has worked toward creating different proposals for school sports in the coming year. Rich shared the recommendations that were voted upon and approved by the MIAA Board of Directors. “The first one is that the state will comply with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs’ (EEA) guidelines. The second thing is that the fall sports will have a delayed start and will not begin prior to September 14.” She continued with the third and final ruling, which is that the handshake protocol for sports will be suspended this fall.
“So right now the entire state is waiting for DESE and EEA to come out and release their guidelines for the fall season, which they told us would be early August,” said Rich. Until then it is not clear whether there will even be a fall season, let alone which sports will and will not be approved.
She explained that in the event of fall sports being approved to move forward, the MIAA COVID-19 task force has three proposals prepared to present to the Board of Directors. She described these proposals as a regular fall season model, an alternate model in which all three seasons run from January through June, or a model that breaks the year up into five seasons with each season including sports that are possible at that specific time. As an example of this third model Rich outlined that the fall could perhaps see cross country track and golf, but most likely no contact sports.
On a more local level, Rich reported that she and her department along with other athletic directors in the area are working on plans and creating protocols for school sports that will keep participants as safe as possible from the coronavirus. She is also working to collect as much data and information as possible from other districts on their plans and ideas for fall sports in their schools.
Director of Pupil Personnel Services Joan DeAngelis addressed the Committee with the Special Education update.
After the first initial school closure this past spring, DeAngelis explained that she and her department began devising plans for and practicing simulations of virtual meetings with parents and evaluations for students on or eligible for IEPs. Once it became clear that schools would not be reopening, DeAngelis and her team made the determination that for the sake of consistency of service, and integrity of the testing process and results, all evaluations must be done in person. The backlog of meetings with parents, however, has been almost totally cleared.
DeAngelis reported that 250 virtual meetings were conducted, but some parents opted to instead wait for in-person meetings to take place in the fall when physical testing could take place. The tentative plans in place at this time for evaluations involves many evaluators rotating from school to school in order to make it possible to see all children who need testing. DeAngelis has recruited 15 evaluators from the district who are willing to help clear the testing backlog when the opportunity becomes possible. “I feel like I have a comprehensive plan to make up all the evaluating that we missed,” she asserted.
While still waiting on more concrete determinations from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), DeAngelis did stress that DESE has provided very clear and specific criteria that must be followed. However, at this point these criteria and guidance are still subject to change.
One such criteria mandates that service delivery grids not be amended. DeAngelis explained that DESE has instructed evaluators to write IEPs based on the school’s cycle and not to make changes to service provisions. “So whether we’re on a five-day cycle or a six-day cycle we will not be making changes to the service delivery grids,” Said DeAngelis.
She relayed that recent DESE guidance has also instructed “even if the district is in a hybrid or remote model, we should maintain every effort to bring students in-person instruction for those students who they consider high-needs.”
After closely analyzing the criteria and definitions for high-needs individuals as determined by DESE, DeAngelis outlined them for the Committee: “Students who have a significant amount of instructional support outside the regular-Ed classroom that requires specifically designed instruction and related services would be considered to be in the pool of student with high needs. They also talked about students who are homeless, in foster care, cannot access remote learning because of their disability, and then dually-identified students who might be English language learners.”
As part of the planning process so far, DeAngelis and her department have been in the process of grouping the students who fit any of these categories into tiers based on the urgency of their needs. She explained that this allows service providers to make the best use of their and their students’ time if in-person instruction is limited. DeAngelis said she has also begun to survey families with specified transportation arrangements in order to ensure that plans are in place to continue that transportation safely if children return to school.
As it is not yet definitively known if the district will adopt an in-person teaching model for the coming school year, the status of Extended Learning is also not set in stone. “It is our hope that we can try to run some kind of semblance of Extended Day, but I want to be clear, as we sit here tonight, we are still not sure if we are going to be able to do that,” said Superintendent Brooke Clenchy “Decisions have yet to be made, and we have yet to receive firm guidance from the state in this area.”
Extended Learning Program Director Reina Rago shared her current plans and ideas for a potential in-person school year with an up and running Extended Learning. To start with, she stressed that a great deal of how the program operates will depend on enrollment.
She stated that for the 2020/2021 academic year 123 students are enrolled in Stow, which is a 25 percent drop from the previous year. Lancaster’s enrollment is at 62 students, which is a drop of 37 percent from the year before. Bolton’s enrollment number is at 97, which is an increase of 3 percent from last year.
The lower numbers overall will likely assist with creating more COVID-friendly ratios. Rago explained that regularly, the staff to student ratio is 1-10, but in the current environment “being careful observers of kids is going to be very important.” Lowering that ratio to 1-8 will allow staff to more closely observe the kids and ensure that all safety and sanitation protocol is being followed.
Rago expressed confidence that Extended Learning employees are well prepared to handle any cleaning measures required to maintain a safe space for the kids. “Our staff are trained in CPR and are very hygiene-oriented. They are already used to cleaning tables and materials and games. They have to because of the nature of what we offer,” she said.
Increased outdoor time and independent play would be encouraged in order to maintain social distancing, and many activities that would traditionally be shared such as board games or structure building would be altered or prohibited. Rago also said they are planning to offer individual crafts and activities with each student having an individually labeled bag with their own materials so that students would not be restricted to one area or table to participate.
Rago also stressed her continued priority to foster a sense of community with the students. “There are plenty of games that my staff and I have brainstormed that will allow kids to socially and emotionally interact,” she said. “I don’t want to go through all of them but everything from Simon Says, hula-hoop, badminton, drawing on a large mural — there are ways that we could offer some enrichment.”
She also stated her desire to provide educational support to students who may have struggled with remote learning and regressed academically. “I can envision some of our staff doing some tutorial kind of work with the kids in a more intentional manner,” she said. “Also it would be wonderful to consider having more high school students as part of that mission.”
Overall, the Directors and the Superintendent are still waiting for specific instructions from higher state authorities. All representatives who spoke at this meeting stressed that at this time it is impossible to know what the coming school year will look like, but they are working diligently to create plans to fit any outcome or contingency.
Joan DeAngelis articulated a sentiment shared and reiterated by the meeting attendees. “I think that when we come back we need to make kids feel comfortable, safe, and really focus on social and emotional needs,” she said. “We have such a committed group of faculty. They are amazing people and I know they will do their very best to bring the kids forward.”