WILMINGTON — Last Wednesday night, Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand and Assistant Superintendent Christine Elliott presented the current status of returning to in-person learning for all WPS students this spring. New DESE guidelines were released with dates for districts to return elementary and secondary grades to full in-person learning after planning began.
The first part of this presentation involved sharing the results of the parent/guardian surveys around the idea of a full in-person return. Overall there was major support among kindergarten and grades 1-12 cohorts A, B, and D parents and guardians for returning to full in-person learning this spring at three-foot social distancing and not a lot of concern for health and safety at school.
The remote parents and guardians seemed to prefer remaining fully remote through the end of the year to keep their children with the same teacher.
While many comments shared by Elliott from hybrid parents and guardians advocated that independent learning couldn’t replace in-person learning, the concerns from those in the remote learning model related to distanced lunches and teacher vaccinations.
As for the staff survey, almost half of WPS staff said they would be very concerned for their health and safety if all of the current hybrid students returned to full in-person learning. Almost half also said no to the idea of expanding in-person learning for this school year and preferred to maintain six-foot distance for all students and staff in school.
The difficulties that they identified for this included spaces for lunch, staffing, planning for changes, helping students through the transition, and maintaining social distancing.
This survey also asked staff if they were vaccinated or planning on being vaccinated. 83.3 percent said that they were not. Only 60 percent said that they would be more comfortable with reducing the distance in school if they were vaccinated by the time they returned.
M. J. Byrnes commented that it seemed like the decisions are being fueled by fear while the perspectives on both sides were similar.
Elliott said, “Some responses were thoughtful, lengthy, and very constructive… You could feel people’s anxiety.”
David Ragsdale shared the messaging from leadership should say that other safety protocols have to be taken seriously to prioritize the social-emotional health of both teachers and students.
Brand explained the building and program assessments and preliminary planning that had taken place so far. With DESE guidelines requiring districts to return to full in-person for elementary by April 5 and middle school by April 28, he said that their thinking has shifted to shaping the inevitable return for this spring.
They will continue to provide the remote learning option for this year, but all other students can only have structured learning time in person after these dates.
He went on to say that DESE recommendation for social distancing has always been six feet was preferred, but no less than three feet would be acceptable. He included that research has recently stated that there’s little difference benefit to six feet compared to three feet in terms of lowering the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
Elliott added that the implications of cohorts A and B both returning to full in-school learning necessitate removing classroom furniture, moving larger classes to new rooms, and updating the master and special education schedules. This would also require staggered locker times, arrival and dismissal, increased cleaning, scheduled bathroom breaks, and more staffing for more lunch periods.
“Lunch, snack, and mask breaks pose a significant challenge,” she continued.
Besides necessitating more food services staff, it also might make some lunches move outside or into other rooms like gymnasiums.
Overall, she shared the findings indicate that they can accommodate in-person learning at three-foot distancing without changing students’ teachers as long as no new class sections are required. The only exception to that is if elementary students switch either from hybrid to remote or remote to in-person — those students would receive a new teacher.
High school remote students would have the same teacher if they switch to full in-person. The current plan is to return elementary by April 5 and middle and high school by April 26.
Brand said that he anticipates negotiations with the WTA for the return to in-person learning starting on the 15th, and updates to come at the next School Committee meeting on March 24.
The committee members appreciated the focus on mental health and social-emotional wellbeing in this plan. Jo Newhouse said that this transition will be adding an extra layer of stress onto students who are already becoming more withdrawn and having trouble with their schedules.
Byrnes went as far as to say this should have an implication on MCAS scheduled in the beginning of May, that MCAS prep time would be better spent on getting students back to in-person learning.
Ragsdale’s largest concern was about staffing increases due to more lunch periods and possible additional sections of classes. Brand replied that they hope to keep the current staff and will be hopeful for applications for any new positions that they require.
Newhouse proposed surveying the staff in case anyone had new plans not to stay in the district due to the DESE requirements.
Jay Samaha called attention to the current timeline with elementary returning first at the beginning of April but middle and high school not until the end of the month. Brand explained that the 12th is the start of April break, and the middle and high school especially have a lot of furniture that needs to be removed to make space for three feet distancing.
However, he said that they’d return students at any level as soon as they can, even if that puts high school students in before middle school.
Jenn Bryson also asked if parent representatives could be included in the building-based coordinating groups, since many had asked to be more involved in planning. She said she’d like to release some guidance for families in how they should discuss this transition with their students.
The board approved motions to return elementary to in-person no later than April 5 and middle and high school no later than April 26.