An Interview With School Superintendent Lisa Howard

Businesses, town agencies and school districts across the nation have been upended as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a shift in policies and procedures that have provoked discord in society. Amongst those who are most highly affected by the lapse in lifestyle, are students, teachers and school district staff members. Superintendent Lisa Howard weighed in on a few questions that will shed light on the reasons for remote, and the plans that are in place for an uncertain future.

Why is WPS in Remote?

We had all intentions to open the 2020-2021 school year on September 16th in a Hybrid model. We developed, submitted and received approval to do so prior to August 10. On August 19 the community entered its first week of a red designation related to the Mass DPH color coded metric. We remained in the red for the next several weeks and had to revise the plan to open school in a remote model of learning that the Department of Education expected, given the fact that Winthrop has remained in the designation as a high risk community (RED). We are still remote because we have remained in the red for nine consecutive weeks since.

Is the Winthrop Teacher’s UnionPpreventing us from going back to school right now?

Absolutely not. What is preventing us from going back to in-person learning is the fact that the community is designated as a red community and has been for nine consecutive weeks. The Department of Public Health color coded metric is designed to identify communities at risk and the Department of Education is very clear about their expectations regarding communities that are in the red for three weeks or more. The expectations are that these schools need to be fully remote with the option of having small groups of students with the highest needs attending school in a limited in-person model. We have been red since August 19th and there are not identifiable ‘extenuating circumstances’ that would justify a move to in-person learning and justify going against the Mass DPH and the Mass Dept of Education’s recommendations. We have no nursing home outbreaks, no college campus outbreaks and honestly no evidence that the community is even trending in a consistent positive direction. I am aware that several people disagree with the DPH color coded metric and the Department of Education’s expectation of learning related to the metric based on the size of our town and the population of people being diagnosed. I can’t imagine that DPH and the infectious disease physicians who created this metric would not do what is in the best interest of children and families. We all agree that there is a dire need for our students to return to the school environment not just for the educational benefit but also to help the impact that this pandemic has had on the social/emotional and mental health of every child. We will return to in-person learning when it is deemed safe by the Mass Department of Health.

Is the DPH color-coded metric the only thing holding back the reopening of schools and do you look at more then just the weekly COVID-19 report when considering next steps?

First, we have a COVID-19 Health and Safety Committee made up of administrators, school nurses, the Town Health Nurse and, most recently added to the team, a teacher from each school building. Since August 19th this team has reviewed Winthrop’s daily case count, the positivity rate, the population of diagnosed cases, the number of students and staff tested positive and any circumstance that could be identified as a potential “extenuating circumstance” that would be affecting our ability to move out of the red designation. This committee also looks at the guidance as reported from CDC, DPH, and DESE to ensure that we are in compliance with the expectations related to opening schools in any model of learning. In terms of other reasons that are related to opening beyond our designation, staffing is a major component related to our ability to open up once we are out of the red. We need to have sufficient staffing to cover the students participating during in-person learning, those home on the remote days of hybrid learning and those who choose not to return to any in-person learning and remain fully remote. We have staff who have preexisting medical conditions that will prevent them from working when students are in-person and we also have staff who will be on maternity leave throughout the year. We have been planning for these potential leaves of absence as they have become known to us and we’ve been posting anticipated positions, reaching out to staffing agencies and recruiting from local colleges. Many, many other public schools are in the same position as we are and the pool of qualified applicants is very thin. 

Are teachers threatening not to go back to work if the WPS moves into a Hybrid (partial in-person) model?

Absolutely not. Our teachers have been more then cooperative in planning all aspects of this new form of education. Our staff has been back in their classrooms since September 16th, the first day of school. Our teachers settled a signed MOA in which the changes of job responsibilities have been clearly outlined and agreed upon. The Winthrop Teacher’s Association did not take the same stance as the Mass Teacher’s Union in terms of a ‘Stand Out’ or refusal to report to work. There may be teachers with preexisting medical conditions that are not able to return to the classroom when students are participating in the in-person model, however; that is not a refusal to work, it is an inability to work in an environment that would compromise their health due to a diagnosed illness, disability, or preexisting condition.

Can students classified as high needs go back to school if the Town is in the RED and if so why?

Yes, the DPH and DESE has determined that even if a district is designated as red, the district can decide to bring the high needs population into school for in-person learning, in small groups if all of the other related health and safety guidance can be implemented and if it is deemed safe to do so in a limited fashion.

What is the plan to go back?

Our high needs students are returning in a phased in plan that began this week with a small number of students at the high school and Arthur T. Cummings School. Over the next several weeks we will continue to phase the remaining students who are designated as high needs into their classrooms for in-person learning. Overall, we will phase in approximately 125 students designated as high needs. For the general population of students to begin in-person learning in the hybrid model, the community will need to move from red to the yellow designation of the Mass DPH color-coded metric for a period of at least three weeks, our classrooms will need to be sufficiently staffed, the School Committee will need to vote to transition to hybrid and we will need to provide a two week notice of transition to staff members.

Can the school department ignore the DPH Metric and the expectation of the Department of Education and go back to in-person learning even if we are still in the red?

Considering it is technically not a “law,” I guess you could. It would however, in my opinion, be irresponsible to do so. This rubric was developed by Mass Dept. of Public Health and Mass infectious disease physicians and they collaborated with the Mass Department of Education to assist with determining the expected learning model under each color- coded condition. After speaking with the Commissioner of Education in early October, I am convinced that remaining remote until our community gets out of the red and demonstrates stability in the yellow, is the safest and most responsible decision at this time. Should the School Committee vote to move to a hybrid model while we are in the red, the DESE would require an explanation that would prove that we have an extraordinary circumstance that justifies moving to hybrid when the expectation is that our students remain remote. We simply do not have an identifiable extraordinary circumstance that can be justifiably applied. In speaking with Commissioner Riley, the small size of our community, the negative impact on the social/emotional well-being and mental health of students, having a COVID-19 testing center in town, nor the parental requests to institute hybrid learning are justifiable reasons to waiver from the expectation of the DESE to have students remote when a community is color-coded red for three weeks or more.

What if a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19?

WPS will follow the protocols published by DESE this summer. These protocols include ensuring that the student or staff member is at home until they are no longer contagious, notifying anyone who may have been in close contact with the individual, and sharing instructions for isolation and testing.  Notification to people who were in close contact with the individual may come as a phone call, email, or text message.

When in-person learning does reconvene, can families choose whether to send their children to school or keep them learning remotely?

In-school attendance is highly encouraged to promote student academic progress, because there is no substitute for the attention and engagement possible with in-person learning. If Winthrop is offering a hybrid model or in-person instruction, families can choose to participate in that model or keep their child at home learning remotely. WPS will notify parent two weeks prior to transitioning to a new model of learning.

Is there a chance that if  school transitions to a hybrid model, that it could again have to change to remote learning?

Yes. If the public health situation changes in a school or our community, we might switch to a different learning model during the course of the school year either as a full school district or by individual schools. That is why districts were asked to include all three learning models (in person, hybrid, and remote) in their plans. We are working closely with the Department of Education and the local Board of Health to navigate our way through these situations as they emerge.

Will schools be able to test students who have symptoms of COVID-19?

If a student shows symptoms he or she will be quarantined away from all students and staff until a parent or family member is able to pick him or her up. The school will continue to follow up with the student’s family to create a learning plan for the child until it is safe for them to return to school. If district leaders believe there might have been transmission of COVID-19 cases within the school building, the district can work with the local health department to request a mobile testing team from the state. The mobile team will be available to test students and staff who do not have symptoms (anyone with symptoms would already be home and would be tested elsewhere).

Other than the color-coded metric and potential staffing issues, are the buildings ready to accept students?

All four of our school buildings are ready to accept students who will be welcomed in by staff members currently working from their classrooms. All precautions have been taken to provide a safe learning environment for all who enter the buildings.

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