The August 25 School Committee meeting was conducted in a “hybrid model,” with some participants joining via Zoom and others meeting at the Broadmeadow School. Participants demonstrated key features of a return to in-person learning by wearing masks and being seated six feet apart. Members of the public had the opportunity to comment via Zoom, but no one asked to comment. The primary topic of discussion was an update on school reopening plans.
Update on School Reopening
Dr. Gutekanst provided an update of current reopening plans, including a recap of key elements of the Blue/Gold cohorts (hybrid), the Green cohort (prioritized in school) and the Red cohort (remote learning). The cohort members are being finalized and parents should expect to receive communication from their child’s school in the upcoming days and weeks. Detailed information on the hybrid and remote cohorts has been provided through a series of Family Meetings and resources posted on the NPS website.
Health and Safety
The district has been reviewing maintenance plans and needs with the town, and has been developing metrics to guide any needed closure or reopening situations. Additional custodial staff will be hired and nutrition workers will help with cleaning and disinfecting.
The Town has hired engineers to assess the condition of all HVAC systems and identify areas of need, and those findings will be available to the public in about two weeks. Airflow testing has been conducted on buses to determine seating and ventilation standards.
In addition, the Harvard School of Public Health has conducted a study of airflow in classrooms at Pollard. Preliminary findings have determined that the minimum airflow of four air changes per hour (ACH) can be achieved in Pollard classrooms with windows through additional mechanical ventilation and keeping doors and windows open. Windowless classrooms would require either additional ventilation or will not be used. These findings will also be generalized to Mitchell, which uses a similar ventilation system. The district will also test CO2 levels throughout all school buildings to ensure there is adequate ventilation.
A Health & Safety Joint Committee is determining metrics to determine when schools should reopen or close, and is proposing the use of three measures:
DPH and DESE Health Metrics
Testing Positivity Rates
Adherence to NPS expectations, including mask-wearing, social distancing, hygiene, and ventilation.
These measures will be assessed before the opening of schools on 9/14. The Joint Committee will meet weekly, and each school will have its own Health & Safety Committee, which will also meet weekly.
The First Weeks of School
Staff will be returning to buildings starting August 31. They will have two weeks to prepare before students begin on September 14. For the first week of school, the two hybrid cohorts will each attend in-person two mornings. In the afternoon, teachers will connect with students in the other cohort remotely. The regular alternating-week schedule will commence the following week, with the Gold cohort in school and the Blue at home.
Additional resources will be needed to reopen schools safely. In particular, about 15 to 22 new FTE teachers need to be hired to instruct red cohort students and cover teachers taking leave. The preliminary estimated budget shortfall is $1 million - $1.5 million. The district will be working with the Finance Committee to discuss funding, and will renew efforts to advocate for increased federal stimulus funds.
Students are being assigned to cohorts and classes now. Bus and class schedules will be available the first week of September. The remote learning plan for the Blue/Gold/Green cohorts continues to be developed in the event it needs to be implemented at some point during the year. Building maintenance needs and classroom preparations also continue.
The district is determining staffing, including which teachers will be unable to return to school, and hiring new staff to cover those positions. Unfortunately, every district is in a similar position, so the pool for teachers is shallow. Collaboration continues with the Needham Education Association (NEA), which represents five employee groups. They have been a strong partner in planning for reopening and ensuring the hybrid model is safe for both students and staff. The NEA is operating independently of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA).
Dr. Gutekanst concluded his update by reiterating that NPS is pursuing the hybrid model, which is very complex to implement, because it is the best way to support the social/emotional and academic growth of students. But the district will only continue with the hybrid model if it is healthy and safe to do so.
Comments & Questions
The superintendent addressed committee members’ questions regarding expectations for live teaching during the remote weeks of the hybrid model, how the curriculum will be addressed, cohorting, the student experience, staffing needs, performance classes, extracurricular activities and finances.
Teaching during remote week/curriculum
Live teaching is expected to be much more robust than last spring, and will vary by level. Terri Duggan, Assistant Superintendent for Student Learning, explained that the goal for the hybrid students during their remote week was to engage in five to five and a half hours of learning a day, with about 50% being synchronous, depending on the grade level. They are aiming for two hours of synchronous learning at the elementary and high school level. The superintendent acknowledged that families will have to partner with teachers, and provide support at home, as there will not be live interactive lessons for hours at a time. The experiences from the remote week will be folded into the in-person week, so the curriculum is always moving forward.
At elementary level, students may not be with the classroom teacher, but could be with special area teachers (PE/Music/Art) or with literacy coaches or other specialists.
In middle school, each teacher will teach one section to remote students live each day. Middle school may have more contact with their teachers, due to the block schedule being used.
In high school, part of each remote week will be taught synchronously and part will be independent work. High school students will be in touch with their classmates and teachers. There will be a two-week cycle for instruction and assignments.
At the district level, educators and curriculum leaders have been identifying essential concepts and establishing pacing guides to ensure the curriculum is advanced. 380 teachers participated in professional learning on remote teaching. Workshops on project-based learning in a remote environment were run for many high school teachers.
Families are expected to stick with their cohorting decision, though exceptions can be made if there are extenuating circumstances. At elementary level, students will have assigned seats and will be cohorted with their class. For middle school, the cohorts will be the clusters, for the most part. For high school, due to the complexity of the schedule, students will not be cohorted, beyond the Blue/Gold cohorts. The possibility of assigned seating is being considered for MS and HS.
The superintendent responded that efforts are underway by PTCs to focus on community-building opportunities. Some of the Wednesday combined class times will help, and there will be more emphasis on students working together, for example on a project.
Information about staff who are requesting medical leaves has been gathered, and there will be a need for additional staff. There is a plan to promote many of our highly qualified and experienced teaching assistants into teacher roles, but this will create a need for more TAs. Job descriptions are posted and recruitment activities are underway, but the competitive landscape for thoughtful, competent, qualified people is very tight this year.
Band, chorus and strings classes will happen during the school day, likely outside and spaced 10 feet apart, but performances will not take place. Teachers will also use flipped classrooms, where instruments are played at home and recorded, as well as emphasizing theory and composition during classroom time. Athletics participation is still being determined between the state and the different leagues. Decisions are forthcoming, and more information will be distributed at that time.
Additional staffing will be expensive, both to cover leaves and for additional maintenance. The district will also incur expenses for PPE, devices to roll out the 1:1 digital device program to all students, tents for outdoor classrooms, safety materials installed in the office, etc. Some of those costs will be borne by the town, and some additional funding will come from the state, but advocacy for increased federal funding will also be important.
Face Covering Policy
Dr. Alan Stern, school physician, discussed the face covering policy which is based on the MA Association of School Committees draft. It asserts that masks are critical to preventing the spread of disease, and students K-12 will be expected to wear a mask. Students who are in violation of the policy will be removed from school and placed in the Red cohort until they can comply. A draft of the full policy can be found on page 52 of the meeting packet. The school committee will be voting on the mask policy at the next school committee meeting.
The committee discussed the draft FY22 budget guidelines. Language will be added to address COVID-19, and additional areas of expense were identified in the event the pandemic lasts longer than expected.
The committee voted to request a placeholder warrant for the October Special Town Meeting, possibly $1.5 million - $2 million additional resources will be needed due to the health emergency.
The committee discussed and approved pursuing Option 3 of the Emery Grover Feasibility Study. Option 3 preserves and restores the facade of the administration building, while creating better building flow and parking, and more light and windows.
The next school committee meeting is scheduled for September 1.