The August 11 School Committee meeting was dedicated to further discussion of the school reopening plan, culminating in votes to approve the recommended hybrid model and to approve the revised school calendar.
The meeting opened with over an hour of public comments. Several parents said they were in favor of starting the year off in a remote model and waiting for further data on rates of transmission. Some teachers expressed concern that they did not feel the proposed model addressed their safety concerns. Some commenters made suggestions on how to proceed, including ideas for tents, for remote students logging in and viewing what is happening in the classroom, and for doing more surveying of parents and teachers.
School Committee members do not directly address or discuss statements made during the public comment, per their policy, but commenters were thanked by the committee throughout the evening for providing their input. Superintendent Dan Gutekanst commented that it might be helpful to hold a forum in the near future, and CNS will publicize this forum when it is scheduled.
Plan to Reopen Schools
Dr. Gutekanst began his presentation by emphasizing that the health and safety of students and staff are central to the reopening plans. Members of the Health & Wellbeing Task Force present to answer questions were:
Barbara Singer, Director of School Health Services
Dr. Alan Stern, School Physician
Timothy McDonald, Needham Director of Public Health
Professor Alan Geller, Harvard School of Public Health
Dr. Gutekanst informed the committee and public about additional guidance based on daily per capital case rates that was introduced earlier that day by the MA Department of Early and Secondary Education (DESE) and the MA Department of Public Health. By this metric, Needham is currently categorized "Green" and can move forward with a full return to school or a hybrid model return.
After recapping the planning process that was described at the 8/6 School Committee meeting, Dr. Gutekanst presented his recommendation for the hybrid model, citing space challenges that would make a full return with social distancing impractical.
Priorities that led to this recommendation include a focus on relationships, access, flexibility, and support for all staff and families. Core beliefs include that ALL students benefit from interaction, socialization, collaborative and hands-on learning, communication and personal relationships that are supported by being in-person.
Compared to other hybrid options, the “week in/week remote” model supports better tracking of health issues and better contact tracing, while allowing continuity across an entire week, with remote follow-up during the remote week.
Dr. Gutekanst recapped the proposed models, with the Blue/Gold Cohorts (hybrid), the Green cohort (in-school for specialized situations) and the Red cohort (fully remote). Example schedules of the hybrid model during the in-school week and the remote week were shared (see presentation slides).
In response to feedback from parents, Dr. Gutekanst clarified some details of the Red (remote-only) cohort, saying that the red cohort will be taught by NPS teachers, teaching the NPS curriculum. As red cohort teachers and students are matched, it is likely that students will be combined with others in their grade from different Needham schools. It is also possible that some classes, especially at the high school, will be in a DESE-sponsored online program supported by NPS staff.
In the hybrid cohorts during the remote week, students won’t have as many synchronous hours of instruction, but it will be more than in the spring.
Families will receive communications from principals in upcoming days where they will be asked to commit to a particular cohort. Within the hybrid model, students will be assigned to either Blue or Gold by family whenever possible. Once this commitment is made, families will be asked to stay in that cohort until conferences (elementary) or the end of the grading period (middle/high school), unless circumstances or a special situation dictates. Families will continue to be supported with technology devices and, where needed, nutrition services, regardless of the model.
School Committee Questions
School Committee members had an opportunity to ask questions prior to voting. Topics covered included:
Health Precautions: Barbara Singer shared that the Health task force has developed protocols around masks, hand washing, what to do if a student becomes ill, education videos, and more. Families can prepare children for a return to school by practicing good hand washing, mask-wearing (which should not include bandanas or gaiters), and being prepared to pick children up within 45 minutes if they show any symptoms of illness at school.
Infection Rates: Case tracking data continues to support in-person school: Needham currently has a 1.9% testing positivity rate (well below the 5% standard cited by several agencies, including the CDC) and a daily infection rate per 100,000 that is under four. These metrics will be an important part of determining if or when the district needs to move to a full-remote model, as well as input from teachers who will be able provide information about health and safety compliance in the classrooms.
Facilities: Building safety was discussed, noting that the teachers are asking for adequate ventilation. The Town of Needham has historically paid attention to ventilation issues over time, and the systems are being reassessed now, with the exception of the newly-constructed Sunita Williams. The town has commissioned an engineer, and the Needham Education Association (NEA) will also have experts examine the systems. Any immediate concerns will be addressed before schools open and reports will be made public.
Social Connections: A question about students having fun was addressed. Dr. Gutekanst said, “kids will continue to have lunch and recess and kids will be able to be kids. Our role is to help them manage safety,” he said. The PTCs will provide virtual socialization opportunities and parents can continue to be involved. Dr. Gutekanst intends to involve students in school committee meetings, on the Needham channel, and on social media.
Cohorting: While students at the elementary school will remain with their classroom cohort during the day, students at High Rock and Pollard will switch classes within their clusters. It is important to use the teaching tools that are in each room, specific to the different disciplines, and they are not portable. At the high school level, cohorting is not practicable.
The superintendent formally presented his recommendation for the hybrid model, noting that it is the most difficult model to implement but he believes it can be implemented safely. He reiterated that the hybrid model will be implemented for the start of school on September 14 only if it is deemed safe to do so, based on both assessment of health and safety requirements being met in the schools, and state and town data for infection rates and testing positivity remaining low. He stated that this was the most consequential recommendation of his tenure, and he takes his responsibility very seriously.
During the discussion of the recommendation, school committee members again noted the unprecedented amount of feedback that was provided by the community. They affirmed that they observe much to be reassured about when they take in the big picture, and they highlighted the value of the social and emotional benefits that are best obtained in person. Committee members also noted the importance of addressing equity and taking care of the most vulnerable of our community. They spoke of the process and this vote as a humbling experience, but underscored the importance of identifying the essential questions, including how to keep buildings safe, what metrics to use to determine reopening, how we are working with families and staff, and how to implement multiple layers of risk mitigation. The chair concluded the discussion period by commenting that it is possible that we will not return to “normal” for a very long time, and so it is important to see what we can do to implement an experience that is similar to normal in the ways that are most important. She continued by acknowledging and thanking the teachers and staff that teach, mentor, guide and inspire our students every day.
The committee voted unanimously to approve the superintendent’s recommendation. The committee also unanimously passed the recommendation to adjust the 2020-21 school calendar as it was presented and discussed at the last meeting.
The next school committee meeting is scheduled for August 20.