A plan is in place to return all ninth-grade students at Hull High School to four days a week of in-person learning on or about March 8, it was announced during this week’s meeting of the School Committee.
“There was no reason to make that group of kids wait,” School Superintendent Judith Kuehn said during the committee’s three-hour remote meeting on Monday.
“The safety of staff and students continues to be our top priority,” Kuehn said. “At any time, plans can be adjusted according to current health metrics and school COVID-19 transmission data.”
Elementary school students have been back in classes since September. Grades six and seven were scheduled to return Feb. 22, and eighth-graders returned to Memorial Middle School for four days a week on Feb 1.
All of those grades are returning to school four days a week, in compliance with the 6 feet of social distancing protocol.
Based on a pattern of limited academic progress, additional students in grades 10 to 12 are being identified to return to the high school four days a week. (Many of the schools’ highest-needs students are already re-engaged with in-person learning.)
As part of the ninth-grade plan, classes that exceed capacity will be moved to larger spaces, and the freshman transition seminar and Wellness 9 classes will be eliminated.
New honors-level sections of world history, introduction to physics, and English 9 will be created, and the current wellness teachers will be reassigned.
Why now? Kuehn explained that many students and families are struggling under the current model and noted that completing work independently can be challenging.
“There has also been an increase of students experiencing issues with their social-emotional wellness,” she said. “There is simply no replacement for in-person learning.”
HHS Principal Nicole Nosek told the committee that research shows that the transition from eighth to ninth grade is the most challenging. “Students are more likely to finish high school if they pass all of their classes in the ninth grade,” she said.
“We’d have to work out the logistics,” said committee chairwoman Jennifer Fleming. “We don’t want anyone thinking we’re overlooking our seniors.”
Nosek said administrators are looking at every possibility to bring the seniors together in a meaningful and safe way. “We’re looking at every space in the building and trying to be creative with schedules and other considerations,” she said.
Committee member David Twombly said his “knee-jerk reaction” is to bring seniors back to the building. “They have been out of school for a year and a half, which is getting close to being half of their years at the high school,” he said.
Before any decisions are made about returning more students to in-person learning, a study of how many could be accommodated and where, with social distancing of between 3 and 6 feet in place, would take place. If school officials recommend less than 6 feet, an agreement with the Hull Teachers Association would need to be revisited.
Hull Teachers Association Co-President Meg King weighed in on the return-to-school discussion. “We’d obviously like to see all of our students back at school as soon as possible, but CDC [Centers for Disease Control] guidelines are still at 6 feet,” she said. She voiced concern about the possibility of school officials recommending social distancing of less than 6 feet in some cases.
“We need to resolve this issue quickly,” committee member Stephanie Peters said.
Also of concern is the possible spread of coronavirus variants, King indicated. “Some studies indicate that these variants may transmit more in children than is now the case with COVID,” she said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”
State Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley said on Tuesday that, with the robust mitigation strategies already in place and “all the data and evidence we have in hand,” it is time to begin the process of returning even more students to classrooms. (See sidebar below.)
Parent Lisa Canavan said she feels as if “the union agreement is tying our hands.”
There is also concern among parents and administrators that seniors, as was the case last year, are missing out on the activities that usually highlight a fun-filled final year together.
A group of school administrators and seniors’ parents met recently to talk about what kinds of special activities could be planned, with social distancing and other safety protocols in place.
Sidebar: State ed official sees reason for optimism on school return
In a lengthy update to school and district leaders on Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley spoke of “a significant improvement in our COVID-19 health metrics, with nearly half of our schools having pooled testing available for students and staff, and the vaccine rollout is in process.
“We continue to see in-person instruction delivered safely across the commonwealth, and many districts are already starting to bring more students back, especially at the elementary level.”
Riley went on to say that “it continues to be vital to have as many students back in person as possible before the end of the school year.”
He noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend 6 feet of social distancing in its guidance, but he also spoke of a 3-foot distance in some situations.
“The [state] Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will continue to recommend 6 feet of distance where feasible and a minimum of 3 feet when all other mitigation measures are in place [including face masks, hand washing, and sanitizing], which is supported by the World Health Organization, local public health experts, infectious disease physicians, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Governor’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Board.”
CDC guidance, according to Riley, indicates that vaccines are not a prerequisite for returning to in-person learning “even as they will provide an extra layer of protection for school staff.”
At Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Riley indicated that in March he will request that the board grant him the authority to determine when hybrid and remote models no longer count for learning hours.
“This would be part of a broader plan, to be released in March, to begin returning more students to in-person learning this spring, assuming our state’s health metrics continue to improve,” he said.
As outlined in Riley’s update, the state DESE recommends that if districts and schools are currently open in an in-person or hybrid model they should remain open and consult with DESE’s COVID-19 operations team before making any changes to in-person learning.
“Working with the medical community, districts and schools have done an incredible job keeping our students and staff safe during what we hope is a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, Riley said.