WILMINGTON — After many weeks of planning, the finalized fall reopening plan was delivered at the School Committee meeting last Wednesday. The reopening advisory committee would go on to present all three plans (hybrid, remote, and in-person), but the goal is for a remote start as the district phases into a hybrid model.
This same plan is being sent to the Department of Elementary and Second Education.
Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand gave the first part of the presentation. He introduced the intentions of prioritizing the health and wellbeing of students and staff. He also referenced the plans of other towns nearby — some are phased-in hybrid, like Wilmington; some are starting hybrid; and some are remote only.
He shared that it has been deemed appropriate, possible, and preferable for towns and cities in Governor Charlie Baker’s “white zones” in terms of COVID-19 cases to return to in-person learning.
Board of Health Director Shelly Newhouse chimed in to remind everyone that the town currently has six confirmed cases.
“I can’t encourage PPE and masks enough,” she said.
She talked about monitoring the reporting system through the state and being prepared to make decisions to close a school after discussion with district leaders and DESE. She recommended PCR molecular testing especially for students and families once school starts, which may take longer but are more likely to be accurate.
Some of the health and safety regulations that she explained under the hybrid approach are seating students six feet apart at desks, and requiring masks on the bus for all students and during the day for grades 2-12. Brand mentioned that a third party will be evaluating the HVAC systems in all eight schools to see what upgrades are necessary.
The Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Staff Development, Christine Elliott, shared that the fall reopening plan requires each student’s needs to be evaluated and parents’ choice to be considered when it comes to placing of cohorts. The reopening committee had already determined that in-person learning wouldn’t work due to physical distancing requirements and other logistical challenges.
In the hybrid model selected, students in grades 1-12 would go to school in person two days a week, and pre-k and kindergarten would go to school all five days for half of the day. Cohorts A and B will each have three days of remote learning per week, and cohort C will be remote only.
The district hopes to operate as closely as possible with a regular school schedule and to offer the regular catalog of classes. With a more robust learning management system for at-home learning on google classroom, remote learning days will follow a schedule.
Learning will only be synchronous on Wednesdays when all cohorts are remote. In-classroom days will focus on instruction and assessment, and at home days will focus on application and practice of what was learned in person.
Cohort C will contain the students who have elected remote only offering. While cohort C will not coincide with the other cohorts, there will still be dedicated Wilmington remote teachers and a schedule with synchronous learning.
Parents who elect remote only learning for their students at the beginning of school will be able to switch between learning models later.
Should the entire district have to move to remote learning, they plan to keep the cohorts and still follow the in-person schedule. Remote instructions will be strengthened with daily check-ins, chromebooks provided, and a closer following to all content areas in the Massachusetts curriculum.
Dr. Brand returned to explain the phased-in approach starting remotely on Sept. 16, which tentatively would shift to hybrid learning on Sept. 28. He said this would allow extended time to monitor COVID cases and to test and adjust to new procedures in all of the school buildings.
With parent survey results, the district will be working on sorting cohorts and ideally send out student placement and transportation info in the week of Aug. 31. While the plan including all three models has been finalized, there are many steps left for the reopening committee to cover, said Dr. Brand, including but not limited to building-based planning, scheduling, checking procedures and PPE, HVAC assessments, and negotiations with the WTA.
When it came to questions from the School Committee, David Ragsdale asked about cohort C receiving the full benefits of a WPS education. Dr. Brand answered that they’ll be prioritized just as much as cohorts A and B. Another cohort C question came from Jenn Bryson about the schedule, which Elliott said would replicate the fully remote learning schedule.
Bryson asked for a PPE update before Ragsdale asked why remote only teachers could be teaching from classrooms. Jo Newhouse wondered if the cafeterias will be used for lunch in the buildings where CARES is using the cafeteria, and Brand answered the cafeterias will be cleaned before and after lunch is served.
Newhouse also asked about changing between classrooms. Brand said transitions between rooms will be minimized, but in the higher levels, students may be asked to assist staff in wiping down desks between uses. They still want to invite student selection for courses and in whatever applicable cases will have teachers move instead of students.
Ragsdale emphasized the complication of all of the planning, even for something as simple as switching classrooms, and Dr. Brand reiterated the reopening committee has a lot of work ahead of them. For school supplies, he said they may ask students to bring in hand sanitizer or wipes, but they want to be consistent in the type of cleaning supplies.
Bryson clarified that the phased in transition from remote to hybrid isn’t the same thing as the elected remote plan. Brand added the district would make the decision to have everyone fully remote if necessary, but anyone can pick the elected remote plan to be in cohort C.
Newhouse asked about remote learning on days when students aren’t in school, which Brand said will still be scheduled instructional days. He included that teachers are planning instructional activities online for the days that each cohort is remote.
When Jay Samaha asked about students quarantining, Brand returned that they would be kept in their cohort but invited to participate online.
“It will take creative planning to figure out how to make sure that student, if they’re feeling well, can participate,” said Christine Elliott.
Students who are ill won’t have to participate on remote days just like a normal in-person absence.
Ragsdale later asked about how group connection classes like Strings and Band will work. Elliott answered that curriculum team leaders have been thinking about how these classes can be split up and taught different content so students can still partake in them remotely and in-person.
“Once we get further down the road, it’d be helpful I’m sure for the committee to have a realistic sense of what exactly has been able to be scheduled and what hasn’t been,” Dr. Brand added.
Ragsdale went on to share his opinion that the phasing part of the plan is too short. Should it be longer, he said, the district would have more time to solidify remote learning quality and expectations and to plan for in-person operations.
“We’re likely to extend the phase in,” Dr. Brand answered, “but I don’t think that we need to open fully remotely.”
Only Newhouse criticized expanding the phase-in, saying that extending it too long will make it more difficult to tell if kids are sick with the flu or with COVID-19.
She continued, “No matter how robust the remote learning is, [there are kids who] are never going to learn remotely.”
Dr. Brand restated the plan would expand the phase-in time if necessary but is committing to moving to hybrid.
The motion by the School Committee, as read by Bryson, said that the committee approves the reopening plan including all three models. It specifies following the phased-in approach when the superintendent determines the appropriate safety measures are in place to move to hybrid learning. The motion was approved after more clarification.
Bryson proposed that the next School Committee meeting on Aug. 26 be in person. The committee considered this would limit public accessibility and attendance, not to mention the meeting space available. The reopening presentation is available on the school website.