November 20, 2020 --
As we continue to work toward having all students return to school, I wanted to provide an update on our progress over the past couple of months to move us toward more in-person learning for our students. Through this entire process, we have committed these efforts to our younger students first and proposed the following two models: Full-Day Kindergarten (FDK) in school four full days with a remote day on Wednesday and a new hybrid model for Grades 1-5 that would provide each cohort of students in-person learning 4 half days a week and a remote day on Wednesday.
Kindergarten parents (N=153 parents) received their own survey for us to ascertain the data that we needed to move forward with this initiative. A whopping 96.2% of parents supported the idea of bringing our kindergarten students back to school. In order for this to happen, two critical items needed to happen:
1. Given the current restrictions with bus transportation (only 24 students allowed on a 71 passenger bus), we needed a high percentage of parents to commit to transporting their children to and from school. On the survey we had 78.5% of parents indicated they could provide transportation to make this happen. This was great news.
2. The second and most important data point for this model to be implemented was to move some students out of their current class to form two or three new classes while maintaining 6-foot physical distancing. The survey indicated that 35.3% of parents (= 44 students) would agree to have their child switched for this purpose. We needed 28 students moved from their current classroom for this model to work. After follow-up phone calls with the 44 parents that indicated interest, a second survey to all FDK parents, and a Q and A document to all kindergarten parents, we, unfortunately, ended up 13 students short of the number needed for this model. The FDK 4-day in-person model will not go forward and begin on December 7th as we had planned. We may revisit the model again in January.
Parents in Grades 1 -5 ( N= 739 parents) were asked to complete a survey with various data points that we needed information to move to a Cohort A/B Four Day in-person model that would have Cohort A in the morning and Cohort B in the afternoon four in -person days a week. Understanding the significant change in schedules for families, we wanted to get a sense of the feelings around this model. When lunch, recess, and specials were backed out of the current two full days schedule, the 4- day in-person hybrid provided more instructional time for students with classroom teachers per week and we thought it was worth the disruption and change in schedule. Unfortunately, only 46% of parents supported moving to this model. The 4-day in-person hybrid will not go forward as we had hoped. We plan to revisit this model again in January using a phased-in approach.
In addition to the models mentioned above, we have also been planning for Wednesdays as alternating in-person learning days for each cohort as another way of getting additional in-person time with our students. There is emerging evidence that a “deep clean” in between cohorts on Wednesday is no longer an effective or necessary strategy against COVID-19 transmission. The fomite transmission of the virus is now believed to be less than previously thought. Since the two other strategies did not receive the support we had hoped for, we will now shift our focus to alternating Wednesdays as a strategy for more in-person learning for elementary students in the current hybrid model. More information will be forthcoming.
Blake Middle School and Medfield High School have seen a marked increase in synchronous learning during remote days. Additional time slots have been added for synchronous support and teachers in most departments have expanded their check-in times to provide synchronous instruction with some departments live streaming the entire class. We have outfitted numerous rooms with technology upgrades to support these practices.
Two weeks ago Governor Baker decided that all students should be back in school if you are in the gray, green, yellow, and even red communities. (Medfield is yellow again today for the third week in a row.) That was also the same day that you couldn’t be at Noon Hill Grill, Nosh and Grog, or Avenue past 9:30 PM and everyone needed to be home at 10:00 PM. The fact of the matter is that Medfield has not seen evidence (yet-knock wood) of in-school transmission and we all believe that our kids need to be in school more, as long as it is safe. That being said, it is going to take a lot more than “problem-solving” to make this happen. I would encourage people to really think about the complexities and layers of this reopening issue before commenting. If it were as simple as some people want to frame it, believe me, we would have already done it.
Our challenges for full in-person include the following:
Physical distancing at 6 feet. Yes, 6 feet was our choice and this absolutely creates a space issue for us as most of our classrooms can only fit 12-14 students when student desks are 6 feet apart. Our classrooms have been stripped of all teachers’ desks and other furniture just to get the current configurations. Area districts that have some elementary students in full-time have smaller class sizes (14 or 15 before cohorting!), have neighborhood schools, or have seen significant declining enrollment over the years to now have ample additional space. An essential consideration for reducing physical distancing is it will dramatically increase the number of students identified as in school close contacts (required to quarantine) when we have a positive case. We have been saved by 6 feet in the past few weeks. Recent survey data has 61% of elementary parents supporting a reduction from 6 feet to 3 feet.
Transportation restrictions. We are only able to transport 24 students on our 71 passenger buses. Given the number of families that count on bus transportation, this would be impossible without doing double runs, which are costly. As an example, the 4-day in-person model described above was going to cost the district an additional $200,000+ in transportation costs alone.
Collective bargaining issues. In June and into July, superintendents and school committees were told by state officials that “85%-90%” of what takes place in the 2020-21 school year will be driven by the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Somewhere around mid-July, a 180-degree pivot took place and it changed to “local control”. This decision forced every district in Massachusetts to negotiate its own collective bargaining agreement. In order to give superintendents additional flexibility in designing the structure of the school day in a pandemic, the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents reached out to Governor Baker to give us temporary relief from Mass General Laws Chapter 150E. We even provided the Governor a pathway to do this. It did not happen. So now the state has over 300 different agreements in place and Chapter 150E still mandates bargaining for anything deemed “a change in working conditions”. Because our agreement was done prior to the implementation of a completely new learning model, the Medfield School Committee, Medfield Teachers’ Association, and I have agreed to have a conversation after Thanksgiving on what is working well and what can we consider looking at differently.
These challenges have been described to me in emails as “excuses”. They are not excuses, in fact, they are the reality of public schools in Massachusetts. None of these challenges are impossible to overcome, but it can not happen overnight. Clearly, each bullet point above only scratches the surface of the layers for each issue. We will continue to work toward creative and safe pathways to more in-person learning in our schools.
As a parent, I understand how incredibly frustrating this pandemic can be to your child's education. My son was a member of the Class of 2020, lost out on his senior year spring, and now is home after only spending a couple of months away at college because of COVID numbers. My daughter is a junior in high school and didn’t step foot into a classroom until October 16th and is now remote because of COVID concerns. And my wife is a first-grade teacher in a hybrid model trying to juggle it all from the classroom perspective. To be honest, I’m not sure how my family would have managed this pandemic if our kids were in elementary school. I understand the frustrations of families and really appreciate those that have reached out with feedback and encouragement. Please know we are working as hard to bring kids back safely as we did over the summer to ensure your kids and our staff were safe for in-person learning in September.
I wish you all a safe and enjoyable Thanksgiving.