School Committee Shifts to a Remote Start for the Fall

At Monday night’s school committee meeting, two weeks after committee members voted to adopt a hybrid learning model, there was a change of plan to a fully remote start, driven by several important factors. 

The decision to opt for a fully remote start to the school year, came due to survey responses and evidence provided by Town Nurse, Meredith Hurley. Superintendent Howard shared the new and critical information that has been presented since the hybrid decision was made during the August 3rd meeting.

“Since the hybrid decision was made, we’ve received new information that is critical to the opening plans of the Winthrop Public Schools,” said Howard, who meets with Town Nurse Meredith Hurley daily to review the current state of Winthrop’s COVID cases.

Howard, who has received upwards of 150 emails a day since a parent survey was sent out, has been on the receiving end of an array of frequently asked questions. Since then, she’s made it her mission to supply parents with communication in the form of direct answers, FAQ’s and even offered an extended deadline to the survey, which presented the question of remote versus hybrid for parents of students in grade pre-k thru 12.

The survey responses was one of the driving factors of the committee’s decision to opt for fully remote for the school year start. Out of the 1,987 students in the district, there were 1,064 responses to the survey as of Monday evening. 822 of those parents chose to send their students back in a hybrid model and 235, 22% of the respondents chose the fully remote option. While there are still over 900 responses due to be turned in, the numbers opting for remote were much higher than expected and the 235 were scattered across varying grade levels.

Some parents who chose hybrid also questioned whether their child would be counted absent if they didn’t show up on in-person days. Hybrid students not showing up to in-person lessons would be considered absent and if ongoing, the school would need to seek reasons why the students weren’t attending.

In a survey that was given to staff and teachers to get a sense of future staffing, it was determined that 13-17% of teachers/staff were not able to come back due to pre-existing health conditions or the daycare relief act, which is a new legislation that allows employees without daycare to take 12 weeks of partially paid MFLA through December of this year to care for their children. According to the survey, 25 teachers and five paraprofessionals made up the total staff members not coming back this fall.

Out of the 320 staff members employed at WPS, approximately 100 of them don’t live in the town, and come to Winthrop from 48 different communities, some of which are considered high exposure communities such as Everett, Lynn, Revere and Chelsea.

A recent rise in COVID cases in Winthrop over the last 30 days is also a cause for concern. As the numbers get analyzed on a daily basis, the return to school task force is taking the recent spike into consideration.

“I want to see everyone back to school and I was hesitant to make the motion to go fully remote,” said Town Council President Phil Boncore. “Two weeks ago I would’ve said that the students should go back immediately. In the last 30 days, Winthrop has had 29 new cases. We’ve been mentioned numerous times because of our COVID numbers, we’ve been in the newspapers because of it, the governor has mentioned us because of it. Every community around us has gone remotely. Now that there is a metric that we can measure it put out by the Department of Public Health, the governor, the DESE and the COVID-19 command center, we have to follow it for the safety of our children, for the safety of the families they may bring something home to. As council president and CEO of the town it’s my responsibility to make sure that people are safe and I want people in Winthrop to be safe.  Be careful. Wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance, and use common sense. Let’s get down to zero a day.”

With a remote start on September 16th, the district will effectively use the additional ten days to train the staff on using the remote technology efficiently, far beyond what was utilized during the spring. The updated technology allows for better connectivity, breakout classrooms and screen-sharing in a user-friendly format. The expectation is that all teachers will return to a working environment on August 31st. On average, at the elementary school level, teachers will conduct 15 minute lectures in their working classroom via Zoom and assign projects for students to either accomplish in breakout rooms or privately.

Over the next several weeks, trainings will be held for parents, to help them navigate their way through the new remote system. This will be especially essential for parents of elementary aged students. Teachers will still work a contractual seven hour day and students will average 5.5 hours of academic time per day.

Superintendent Howard and the return to school task force will reevaluate the remote learning model on November 13th and determine the next steps for getting students back in the buildings.

“Everyone is sharing the frustration. This is a decision that none of us want to make. We want our children in school. I believe 50% will be happy, the other 50% will not. As long as everyone understands that every decision we make in the public school is one that we’ve done for the kids. We as the WPS will not let you down and will not take our foot off the gas pedal in getting our kids back in school.”

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