During a special School Committee meeting on Monday night, the school committee voted to approve an earlier school start date of April 5 for all students, K-12 to full in person learning, going against the starting procedures recommended by School Superintendent Howard. Howard provided the School Committee with recommended return dates that were reflective of the in-depth return to full in-person learning study that was conducted by the administration at the request of the School Committee, and in line with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education directives released on March 10.
Prior to the start of the meeting, students and parents gathered in front of Winthrop High School holding up blue and gold signs, urging decision makers to open the school doors. The rally was organized by a parent who identified herself as being focused on concerns over mental health issues among students learning remotely.
After the March 8 school committee meeting, Howard and the leadership team scrambled to follow the new protocols, released on March 10 by the Department of Education, requiring the elimination of all hybrid learning models and the implementation of full in-person learning for grades K-12. The result of the new protocols drove several considerations including, classroom reconfiguration to accommodate full attendance in classrooms with three-foot distancing. The district would need to remove a large amount of furniture, purchase over 1000 individual student desks, reconfigure schedules to meet mandatory in-person time on learning requirements, rent tents to provide additional mealtime spaces that require the six-foot distancing protocols.
Before a vote was taken, Howard shared a plan for the upcoming weeks that would get all students back to full in-person learning by April 26th, following spring break. The plan outlined grades K-5 returning on April 5th as mandated by DESE, Grades 6-8 returning April 26th which is three days prior to the DESE recommended date and although the Department of Education has not released a date for the return of grades 9-12, Howard made it clear that the middle and high school should be treated as one group and that there was no reason to wait for additional guidance from DESE on a recommended return date for 9-12. She put forth a recommendation to return grades 9-11 on April 26th, the same date as grades 6-8, and also recommended that grade 12 return on April 5th given the shortened calendar for seniors. The recommend dates were part of a strategic implementation process in which the administrative team set a specific timeline to accomplish a multitude of required tasks. The effective implementation of the plan was designed to result in an expedited return to full in-person learning, reflective of equity and adequate resources available and in place for all students upon the date of return.
Howard presented the following timeline:
March 3- Present planning, research, purchasing plan development, surveys, staff in-put, and schedule reviews.
March 31: Furniture delivery scheduled for the Arthur T. Cummings School and the Gorman Fort Banks School to accommodate the K-5 start date of April 5.
March 31-April 4: Furniture scheduled to be assembled by contractors.
April 4: Tents scheduled to be installed and inspected at the GFB and ATC.
April 5: Grades K-5 and seniors start full in-person learning.
April 16-21: All excess furniture, including 500 two-person tables, removed from middle school and high school and brought to off-site storage. All middle school and high school furniture scheduled to be delivered and installed. This lines up with April vacation (April 19-23). The DoE recommended grades 6-8 start on April 28, in the middle of the week, however; Howard recommended April 26, while they waited for further direction regarding grades 9-12.
Staffing adjustments were also addressed, and open positions for several monitors needed to cover lunchtime and bathroom breaks, have been posted.
Study results included the collected data, staffing needs, facility review findings, furniture needs, timelines for removal of current furniture, delivery of new desks/chairs, storage options, revised schedules, adjusted school start and end times and the recommended dates that each grade could successfully transition to full in-person learning. Despite the level of detail provided by the Superintendent, supporting the need to follow a strategic plan to ensure that all students were returning to an environment that had equitable and adequate resources (desks and chairs for every student), the committee voted to return all students, K-12 to full in person learning on April 5, 2021 even if there were not an adequate number of desks available. After deliberation, the committee sided that two weeks without furniture won’t hurt the students and a little discomfort will be worth all students getting back in the classroom. This means that students in grades 6-12 could potentially be in classrooms and cafeterias where some students will have access to a desk and chair while other have only a chair with no option for a desk at all. A committee member suggested the school provide clipboards to students as an alternative to a desk.
In response to the committee going against her recommendation, Howard made it clear that her main job is ensure children are safe and have equal access to adequate materials and resources so they can focus while in class. She also stated that student well-being remains a top priority.
“My focus will always be in the best interest of children and that is not always the best interest of adults. We agree all children need to be back to school in the fastest and safest way. I am awaiting the day every student in WPS is back to full, in-person. Over the past twelve months, during this pandemic, there have been many struggles but there has also been quite a bit of “good” that needs to be appreciated. The staff at WPS has purchased innovative materials that we’ve never thought we’d have to purchase, we’ve been trained on things we never thought were necessary before the pandemic, I’ve witnessed new teachers train veteran teachers to adapt to the remote learning technology necessities, and in return witnessed veteran teachers train new teacher in content resulting in a new level of respect for each other as we all have something to give during this crisis. I applaud the WPS because we have never once stopped or lost the focus to get all kids back in the classroom and physically in front of us. Our staff has never stopped teaching from March 16, 2020 to the present. This school year, our staff opened their classroom doors in late August and spent 10 days preparing to keep our children safe by reviewing and digesting multiple new safety protocol. On the first day of remote student learning our staff were in their classrooms, at their desks, beginning a new school year teaching close to 1900 students on Zoom. Using everything in their power to keep students engaged on a daily basis has become an Olympic sport as an educator and we have met that challenge without hesitation. I thank the committee, the parents, and the teachers, and especially the students for all that you have accomplished during the multiple transitions that we have had this year. We can’t wait to welcome the students back with open arms as we make the next transition to full in-person learning. I’d rather them be in chairs and with equitable access to adequate resources and not potentially sitting on floors or without desks, but if this is what the committee decides, I will make sure the return happens as directed.”