Hull Public Schools administrators are moving forward with plans to slowly but steadily increase in-person learning for middle school and some high school students beginning in February based on coronavirus health metrics, but the Hull Teachers Association thinks that transition would be too soon.
HTA Co-president Brian Mullin, who asked to speak at this week’s remote School Committee meeting, said that while educators want nothing more than for students to return to school as soon as possible, they question the timing of the potential middle and high school plans. (The Jacobs Elementary School has operated under the in-person learning model since the first day of school.)
“I think we’ve gotten kind of complacent. Red means high-risk,” he said, referring to the town remaining in that coronavirus category for several weeks.
While stating it was “nice to hear a window of time for reopening,” Mullin detailed in a prepared statement several issues that the HTA believes should be considered before a decision to return more students to in-person learning is made.
“Vaccines and pool testing are on the horizon, along with a couple of new COVID strains; we’re in the midst of a surge, and Hull is still in the red zone,” he said. “We feel that’s enough reason to not bring students back to school at this time.”
The idea behind pool testing is combining the testing of a large number of staff members and students at one time and providing assessment data within a short time frame.
The first step of the middle school plan, which will be implemented only if deemed safe to do so, calls for eighth-grade students to return to in-person learning four days a week beginning Feb. 1, with social distancing in place.
At its Feb. 9 meeting, the School Committee is expected to discuss whether the sixth and seventh grades will follow, and if so, in which order and in what time frame.
“The health and safety of our staff and students continues to be our top priority,” School Superintendent Judith Kuehn said. “Our plans can be adjusted at any time,” depending on the current data.
Kuehn also noted that many students and their families have been struggling with remote learning since last March, as evidenced by the volume of D’s and F’s some students are receiving for grades.
Remote learning also poses social and emotional challenges, she continued. “We’re hearing all over the news and from Hull families about the anxiety and depression many students are experiencing,” Kuehn said. “There’s no replacement for in-person learning. It’s the gold standard.”
While Hull has remained in the higher-risk COVID-19 red zone for six weeks, Kuehn reported that there have been only 32 positive cases in the Hull school district across the three schools and that, in most of those incidences, COVID-19 was not transmitted or spread through the schools.
School Committee member Stephanie Peters advocated for returning all three grades at the middle school to in-person learning four days a week as soon as possible.
“We don’t need a phased-in plan there. If we can’t bring 75 [total of all three grades] kids back by Feb. 1 to the middle school, that would make no sense to me,” she said. “I think we need to ramp things up now and be quicker about getting the kids back to school.”
Parents want their children back in school, Peters said, “and we’re doing a disservice to the district. We’re always talking about how small [the Hull school district is], and during a pandemic is a good time to [take advantage] of that.”
She emphasized that the safety and health of the students and teachers have been the number one priority all along. “We have done everything possible to ensure that everyone is safe in these buildings, and we would continue to do that” with more students involved with in-person learning, she said.
Hull High School Principal Nicole Nosek explained that the first step for bring back more students to in-person learning is to give about 30 pupils with 504 plans (which provide accommodations for students with disabilities) and special needs students with Individualized Education Programs the opportunity to return four days a week initially.
Some students without 504 plans or IEPs who have also been struggling could potentially return to in-person learning depending on how many of the students with special needs decide not to return to school.
The option of bringing back freshmen four days a week in accordance with social distancing guidelines is also being explored, although there are space limitations.
Nosek explained that the reason the return of freshmen is being prioritized over returning seniors is because, of the four grades at the high school, the ninth-grade program is the most self-contained.
Another reason, she said, is that “we have the students for four years, and studies show if they build a strong foundation in ninth grade they are less likely to struggle for the remainder of their high school career and more likely to graduate on time.”
Parent Kristin Conneely asked HPS administrators to consider allowing seniors wishing to return to in-person learning at the high school for four days a week to do so “to get the most out of their senior year.”
In sharing the HTA’s perspective, Mullin said that adding extra students would tip the balance away from health and safety and “could be a mistake, with possibly severe consequences. We want students back, but next week is not the right time.”
School Committee member David Twombly responded to Mullin’s comments. “We want to bring [some of] the kids back next week,” he said, “but all this [data] could change if there was another surge or a COVID-19 variant. All things being equal, though, it seems like the numbers are coming down.”
Twombly asked Mullin if he would be opposed to a small group of HTA members meeting with Kuehn and her team in the next few days. “It’s good to get the School Committee’s input, but it would be more meaningful to meet with them first and come back to us after that.”
Mullin said he would talk with fellow HTA members about a possible meeting.
Committee member Lucas Patenaude asked if Mullin expects that most teachers plan to get vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available to them.
“As far as I know, yes. I haven’t heard anyone say they weren’t going to get it,” Mullin said. “I would assume that most are planning to [get vaccinated].”
School Committee member Ernest Minelli acknowledged that the teachers’ perspective is “really important since they are dealing with the children on a daily basis.”
He noted that there is a phased-in system built into the return-to-school plan. “As a School Committee member and parent, I think we have really good health and safety protocols in place and have been really good as a district adhering to public health guidelines.
“We have a well-thought-out middle and high school plan to increase the in-person capacity slowly and steadily, consulting data along the way to inform the decision about the next phase of the rollout,” Minelli said.
School Committee Chairwoman Jennifer Fleming supports getting students back to in-person learning as soon as possible, based on current health metrics. “I want to proceed collaboratively with the Hull Teachers Association to keep everyone comfortable during these challenging times, but I think we should stick with the plan the administration has come up with to keep things running smoothly rather than modifying the plan,” she said.
Twombly emphasized the importance of going about returning students to in-person learning “in a methodical way, or we will lose the confidence of the staff. People are really upset and nervous.”
Following lengthy remarks by Mullin and a spirited School Committee discussion, the consensus among its members was to return as many students as possible to in-person learning as soon as possible, based on COVID-19 data between now and when students are scheduled to go back.
With vaccines, budgets, sports,
SchoolCom’s agenda a busy one
At this week’s remote meeting of the School Committee, School Superintendent Judith Kuehn reported that she and other South Shore school superintendents recently wrote a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker asking that the delivery of vaccines to local school districts for staff members and students be expedited. That effort was supported by state Sen. Patrick O’Connor and Rep. Joan Meschino, a Hull resident.
“We have enough school nurses in our buildings to administer vaccines immediately,” Kuehn said.
In the meantime, HPS administrators are looking into the pool testing option and exploring the possibility of participating in a South Shore Hospital PCR (swab) COVID-19 testing program for students and staff that releases the results within 12 to 24 hours.
“Vaccinations could be available for school personnel by perhaps mid-February,” Kuehn said.
In other business, Assistant Superintendent David DeGennaro presented the preliminary fiscal year 2022 school budget. The $16.3 million proposal represents a $320,835 increase over the FY 2021 budget, or 2 percent higher.
DeGennaro noted that the increase is in line with Town Manager Philip Lemnios’ request to town departments to cap any budget increases at no more than 2 percent.
School Committee budget discussions are scheduled for Feb. 9 and 22 and March 8. A public hearing will be held in April. The Advisory Board is tentatively scheduled to review the proposal on March 22.
As for school sports, athletic director Scott Paine reported that intramurals are up and running Monday through Saturday and have been a success. The fitness room is also open. Currently, the sports include basketball, volleyball, and batting cages.
“The kids would like to get outside and do some drills on the field, especially our football players,” he said. “Some non-athletes are involved as well, and we’ve had nothing but positive feedback.”