On Tuesday, the Manchester Essex Regional School Committee unanimously voted to begin the school year Wednesday, September 16 with a remote-only teaching program. The decision impacts all students in the district, from elementary school through high school.
The decision followed months of consideration. It’s been a complex process for the district, managing regulations, parent input, town officials and the need for student and teacher safety. But, in the end, the committee determined that 100 percent remote learning for all students was the rock-solid option for public safety in the face of COVID for students and staff. In addition, said School Committee Chairman Sara Wolf, it provides consistency in the learning environment instead of a constant schedule of transitions and disruptions associated with hybrid approaches. Remote learning also comes at a cost the district can handle.
Under the initial plan special needs students will have access to in-school learning. For the rest of the student body—in ME High School and Middle School as well as Essex Elementary and Manchester Memorial—teachers will host remote learning from the classroom and connect by web conference to their students, who will follow a set class schedule and curriculum every week.
District teachers and staff have been training on remote teaching technology and techniques since last year.
The decision was not quick or easy. Planning, discussions, and a lot of input from parents and the school committee explored three major options in depth—remote learning and two hybrid versions that sought to balance on-site learning with remote classes.
The fundamental challenge is nearly universal for all districts: the six-foot social distancing requirement disqualifies most school buildings as an option for a 100 percent in-school program. It’s worse for M-E Middle and High School, where its “bar bell” building configuration that features the two schools on either end of a complex and 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. And today, it’s hardly ideal, as COVID rates stay steady and are increasing in Massachusetts counties, including Essex County.
Central is to this issue is public safety for school staff (teachers, administration, other staff) who are concerned about on-the-job safety during COVID.
Earlier this month the district fielded a survey of middle and high school parents. Superintendent Pamela Beaudoin said nearly all (“85 to 90 percent”) were in favor of the hybrid model, and by last week the district was well into exploring two hybrid approaches to an in-school return. 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.
To complicate things, clarity on budgets and grants from the state to cover mandated changes to school safety have yet to come to school districts, so the school committee and the district have had to run through complicated “if, then” scenarios based on what might or might not be funded. At this time, the state is estimated to reimburse the district between $500,000-$600,000.
On Tuesday, the committee shared the true costs of the district’s choices.
The hybrid model costs at least $1.5 million in additional services and equipment. Full time remote learning will cost an additional $604,000.