On Tuesday, August 18, at a ME School Committee “Community Town Hall,” parents and community members learned what to expect when their children go back to school in four weeks, on September 16.
The forum was held exactly one week after the school committee unanimously voted to begin the school year with a remote-only teaching program. The decision impacts all students in the district, from elementary school through high school. Under the plan, special needs students will have access to in-person schooling and the overall remote learning approach will be monitored and evaluated monthly.
More than 218 people attended the web conference. They had questions. With low COVID numbers (Manchester 21 and Essex 24), why a remote-only start to the school year? Is there another model that can be looked at? Will the School Committee reconsider its decision?
They learned the school committee’s decision came after months of evaluating an ever-changing public health picture and concluding that consistency of the school day was the best environment for learning. The theme of Tuesday’s session was clear: there are no good choices for safely schooling children during a pandemic.
“We’re in a bad position, with choices we wish we didn’t have to make,” said Manchester Essex Regional School District Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin.
The remote-only decision was especially hard for elementary school parents, who were the focus on Tuesday’s session. They will have to supervise their children during the remote school day while also having to accommodate normal responsibilities. Working parents, especially, have born a big financial burden to COVID-related stay-at-home mandates.
Beaudoin said the YMCA will offer school day programs and after school programs for Manchester and Essex families.
The YMCA is being primed with the ME elementary school curriculum, so it can offer “guided” childcare, she said. Beaudoin also said there will be financial support programs that can defray cost of childcare for those who need it.
Under the approach teachers will host remote learning from the classroom to their students, who will follow a set class schedule and curriculum every week.
District officials are trying to allay parent concerns that remote classes in the fall will be a repeat of what they experienced in the Spring, when the teachers and district officials were caught off guard with a sudden move to a new format for classes, when the state mandated a total shutdown of in-school programs in March.
Beaudoin said the remote school day will simulate a typical schedule to the day. Attendance will be taken throughout the day to ensure participation. School work will be handed in, graded and feedback given, performance will be recorded and incorporated into report cards. The tools and format will be different, said Beaudoin, but the expectations will be the same. Kids will be expected to be dressed, and the district is
encouraging that parents create a dedicated space or surface area in their home for school time. Tech support will be also be available to families during remote learning time.
Planning has been complex for the district, managing regulations, parent input, town officials and the need for student and teacher safety. Up until two weeks ago, the school committee was exploring three major options in depth—remote learning and two hybrid versions that sought to balance on-site learning with remote classes. The district fielded a survey of middle and high school parents and Beaudoin said nearly all (“85 to 90 percent”) were in favor of the hybrid model. Both split all grades in half, but one approach toggled in-school and home learning by two and three days per week. The other toggled them according to a one week on, one week off format.
The fundamental challenge of six-foot social distancing requirement disqualifies most school buildings as an option for a 100 percent in-school program. But it’s worse for Manchester-Essex Middle and High School, with its “barbell” configuration features the two schools on either end of a complex with shared common areas in the middle housing the cafeteria, gym and library. This configuration meant that in-school learning during the pandemic was off the table even under ideal circumstances.
But, in the end, School Committee Chairman Sara Wolf said remote learning offers consistency in the learning environment while hybrid approaches were rife with constant schedule transitions and disruptions. There’s also cost. The hybrid model is estimated to cost at least $1.5 million. Full time remote learning will cost an additional $604,000.
To complicate things, the district has had no clarity on grants from the state to cover the mandated safety protocols in school districts, so the district has had to run through complicated “if, then” scenarios all summer based on what might or might not be funded. At this time, the state and federal emergency agency grants to the district are estimated to be $650,000. Beaudoin said Tuesday there had been some hope that federal dollars would be forthcoming, but Washington lawmakers broke for the season without any clarity on funding for school districts. And Manchester and Essex presented budgets to voters this year that froze spending in the face of COVID and uncertainty.
The goal now is to set up the school year properly, and that will play out over the next three weeks. Parents of Special Education students will be contacted individually to share details on in-person instruction. Additionally, the district is planning—weather permitting—a series of outdoor orientation events that will bring parents and students to their school to meet their teachers and fellow classmates and pick up any tools they need as part of their schooling.
The next School Committee meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 1.
Note: In last week’s edition of the paper, we incorrectly reported that the ME School Committee voted to go with a hybrid approach to the school year. We regret the error.