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SC Meeting: August 6, 2020

The August 6 School Committee meeting was focused on school reopening plans. Dr. Gutekenst provided more details on the proposed hybrid learning plan, how remote-only students would be accommodated, and proposed changes to the 2020-21 school calendar. Detailed information is contained in the presentation document.

Public Comments

The meeting opened with public comments from two members of the community, one expressing safety concerns about in-person school and the other about remote learning. School Committee (SC) Chair Andrea Longo Carter also acknowledged many emails and communications from parents and community members. The SC goal is to respond to emails in 24-48 hours whenever possible.

School Committee Comments

SC met with the Needham Education Association (NEA) earlier on Thursday to discuss the concerns of teachers and staff. They include ventilation, health and safety protocols, and cleaning protocols. They continue to collaborate on reopening the Needham schools.

Decision-making Context

Tim McDonald, Needham Public Health Director, shared information about infection rates and trends in MA and Needham which are lower than the rest of the US, and the testing positivity rate which is well below the 5% standard, indicating that we should be considering moving forward with reopening. Data sources cited included The New York Times and John Hopkins University.

Planning Process

Dr. Gutekanst reviewed the process for planning, and then proposed a hybrid model for the fall. It has been determined that full in-person learning cannot be safely and practically implemented, given the social distancing and health protocol requirements. The district’s July survey showed over 80% of families want either full in-person or a hybrid model over a full remote model. Priorities include relationships between students and teachers, equitable access, flexibility, support for those with health/family concerns, and providing the tools and resources to grow. All students-pre-K to 12-benefit from interactions, socializations, collaborative and hands-on learning, communication and personal relationships, so the district has focused on getting kids of all ages back into school.

Four Student Cohorts:

Blue/Gold Cohorts: Hybrid Model

The hybrid model plan includes students in two cohorts (Blue or Gold). Each week one cohort will be in person on M/T/TH/F and the other will engage in remote learning, and the following week the cohorts will switch; all students in these cohorts will be remote on Wednesdays — synchronously in the AM and asynchronously in the PM, when teachers will do their planning and collaboration and the school will be cleaned.

Green Cohort: Full-Time In-Person

In addition, there will be a cohort of high needs students (Green) that will be prioritized for full in-person learning, including students with significant special needs and some English language learners. Preschool students will also be part of this cohort. Parents whose students are being recommended for the Green cohort will be contacted by their special education staff. 

Red Cohort: Full-Time Remote

A final cohort of students (Red) that requires or chooses fully-remote learning will be treated as a separate school within the district. Currently 600 families have indicated a preference for this option, which will be taught by Needham teachers and/or a DESE sponsored online program supported by NPS staff. For high school, it may be a combination of both. The structure of this cohort may shift based on enrollment. 

Later in the meeting, Terry Duggan provided some additional details about the remote learning curriculum in response to questions from SC members. The remote program will be aligned to the state standards. It will reflect Needham curriculum, and be taught in the same sequence, so that the experience is relatively aligned to and in sync with hybrid cohort experiences. For particular class needs (for example at the HS) there will be options offered that are similar to NHS if they can’t be provided by the district. But there are still many other details to be worked out, depending in part on how many families choose the remote-only model.

Hybrid Model Elements

Key instructional elements of the K-5 hybrid model include starting all students with a morning “launch” meeting. Students in school will be organized in pods, so that children minimize interaction with kids in other classes. During the remote week, students should expect two synchronous interactions per day. At Middle School and NHS, students will switch classes. At NHS, course offerings remain the same, with an adapted schedule, and students will have the same classes they signed up for.

Families will have the opportunity to finalize their choice later in the month; once made, changes can happen at the end of a grading period.

The superintendent discussed the benefits of the hybrid model, including the decision to have Wednesdays as a remote day. This will help with continuity for younger children, cleaning protocols, teacher planning. It also provides exposure to only one cohort of kids each week, which will aid in contact tracing, if necessary. It also syncs up with other districts where our teachers and staff have kids in school.

NHS Schedule

Mike Hirsh, NHS physics teacher and NEA Board member, discussed the planned modified high school schedule. Students will have the same 5-day schedule for both hybrid and remote weeks. Each class meets twice per week for 85 minutes, plus 30 minutes on Wednesdays. There will be three passing periods of 10 min each, and reserved x-block time on Mondays and Wednesdays for teachers to consult with students from either hybrid cohort. During the remote week, students can expect to have 40 minutes of synchronous learning and then structured work for 45 minutes for each period.  The hybrid model will necessitate a loss of time in learning with a teacher during in-person weeks, but the remote weeks will have more teacher contact time than last spring. There are benefits and tradeoffs.

Changes from Spring

Accountability will be increased compared to last spring: there will be assessments, grades, conferences, MCAS, and daily attendance taken, for both in-person and remote learners.

After School and Co-Curricular Activities

The school will continue to provide access to Lexia and Freckle, for independent virtual learning. Athletics are delayed until at least September 14, middle and high school clubs will move to remote where possible, Needham Community Ed (NCE) will provide live and online programs in small groups for elementary and middle school students, tutoring volunteers will continue to be available, and METCO will continue to offer virtual support for our Boston-resident families. Except for NEDP, NPS will have a moratorium on all after school building use until further notice. Music and band classes and programs will move forward in accordance with DESE guidelines, shifting to non performance-based instruction. 

Planning Efforts

About 400 teachers worked on curriculum, projects, and professional development over the summer to prepare for the fall, focusing on improving remote learning and making adjustments to the curriculum. There will be an increase in the number of hours of synchronous instruction every day, and the hours expected to be spent on learning will go up as well.


Barbara Singer, Health Service Director, spoke about the mitigation measures in place, including expected mask wearing, social distancing of at least 3’ and 6’ when possible, and hand washing and sanitizer stands in buildings, along with plexiglass in high traffic areas such as the office. Parents will be expected to monitor their children for fever and virus symptoms daily, update emergency info, and keep ill children home. Students will be expected to wear a mask unless eating/drinking or at break times, continue to practice social distancing outside of school, and follow instructions of school staff on buses and at school. Students and staff will be expected to stay home if they show signs of illness. 

A document titled “Preparing for the Reopening of Our Schools: Facility and Maintenance Protocols” with cleaning protocols will be posted next week. The town is hiring additional staff to help with cleaning and inspecting and upgrading ventilation where possible (especially Mitchell, Pollard, and parts of the NHS). 

Operational considerations were discussed, including transportation and nutrition services. Buses will have one child assigned per seat (unless siblings), all wearing masks, and windows open. Middle and High School students will eat in the cafeterias, socially distanced. In elementary school, some kids will eat in the cafeteria and some will be in classrooms.  Breakfasts will continue at the schools that provided them. 

Social/Emotional Learning will be supported with new assessment tools, trauma-sensitive training, and learning opportunities for staff around online teaching, inclusive and culturally responsive teaching practices, and expanding staff skills and practices around project-based learning.

Dr. Alan Stern, school physician, shared information about protocols when a student or staff becomes ill with COVID-19, is exposed to someone with the virus, or shows symptoms suggestive of COVID-19, including how long they will remain away from school and what will be required for them to return. More details in the presentation.

Decisions regarding moving to fully remote will be made in consultation with the School Physician, the Director of School Health Services, the Director of Public Health, and consultation with DESE. It will be based on four criteria, including the 7-day average of positive test results (by date of patient tested), the 3-day average of hospitalizations, the total number of hospitals using ICU surge capacity, and the 3-day average of deaths (by date of death). State-level data will be important, since staff come from all over the state.

Next Steps

  • School Committee votes on the plan to reopen schools, including a revision to the school calendar

  • Provide and post more details about the plan on the district website and by email

  • Continue to gather feedback, manage the planning process, and study health trends,

  • Establish the Red Cohort Remote Learning Academy,

  • Continue to develop a fully remote plan in case health considerations dictate it,

  • Determine cohort assignments in late August or early September and communicate to families

  • Prepare classrooms

School Committee Comments & Questions

  • Technology - planning 1:1 device program, with iPads for k-2 and 6-8 and chromebooks for 3-5 and NHS

  • Special Education - prioritize in-person for highest needs, provide specialized instruction, and will resume testing and special ed eligibility determinations),

  • Entering the building at the high school - may be staggered

  • Outdoor learning - tents are being procured and will be used as long as possible

  • Rationale on remote Wednesdays - trade-offs, but will help with cleaning and teacher planning

School Calendar Changes

School Committee also discussed recommended changes to the school calendar based on the reduction of required learning days by the state. A draft is contained in the meeting packet.

  • The district is proposing a 171-day calendar starting 9/14

  • There will be a full 2-week vacation in December

  • 6/18 will be the last day of school

  • It is expected there will be no snow days. In case of snow, we will just move to remote learning.

  • There are two remaining “floating” days for PD that will be scheduled later, likely during school vacation weeks.

Next Meeting

The next school committee meeting will be held on Tuesday, August 11th (time TBD). The proposed reopening plan will be up for vote, as well as changes to the calendar.

At that meeting, there will be a public comment period at the beginning. CNS wants to remind citizens that any remarks are expected to be less than 3 minutes, and while the school  committee is interested to hear the thoughts of the public, they do not respond directly to comments during the committee meeting, in accordance with their policy on public comments. The full policy can be found here. Comments and questions can also be emailed to


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