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Hybrid model leads school reopening race

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Increasingly, it appears that in September, the students of Needham are going to be hopping on the bus and heading back to school.

Well, sometime in September. And only for half the time.

Last Thursday, the Needham School Committee held a Zoom meeting to discuss their plan for reopening. While nothing was made official, it was abundantly clear that Needham wants to return in the “hybrid” style, wherein the student body would be split into two groups. Half the kids would go to school online, and half would go in person, then they would switch.

Why not fully in-person? There are a couple of reasons. While Superintendent Dan Gutekanst acknowledged that kids don’t appear to be as susceptible to the virus, he has concerns about Needham's teachers, who range in age from 20 to over 75 years old. Transportation would be another huge issue. Gutekanst noted the district currently uses three contractors for their buses, and that “the return to school fully requires either families deciding not to take the bus or purchasing over 20 buses, which we will be unable to do under even the best of circumstances.”

Having half the students inside the school should allow easier social distancing, as less space is required, while still functioning better than a completely remote model, even if it is understood that due to family issues or something else, some students may have to go completely remote.

It’s also possible a school could have a COVID breakout and have to go fully remote, while the other schools continue having in-person learning.  

As for the online learning, Gutekanst said his teachers were all working to get better at it, that he felt the teachers had gotten better as they went along in the spring, and that he was confident the quality of the online learning would be greatly improved. When a local parent noted that the online learning was hugely inconsistent last year, with some teachers doing three live Zoom calls a week and others doing only one, Gutekanst noted that “we were flying the airplane and building it at the same time,” but this year, “we will expect some minimums that teachers will need to follow.” Most importantly, he said that “both as part of a hybrid and if we go fully remote, students would be graded, assessed and we will be taking attendance.”

This caused a bit of an issue during the "questions from Needhamites" portion of the meeting. One parent noted how much more convenient it would be if lectures were recorded so they could be watched later, while Matt Hunninghake noted both he and wife work in the healthcare field, so having mandatory attendance taken in online classes would be hugely difficult for families like his. While it didn’t look great, considering that earlier, Gutekanst was talking about “parental leave” for teachers who couldn’t make the hybrid model work in regard to their own childcare, there was nothing he could do. Why? The state is requiring attendance. But he did try to assure everyone that “I know our principals will be really thoughtful.”

When school starts and how long it will be was another issue. Right now, the plan is for school to start in early September, but the committee is looking to move that back to just after Labor Day. Also, while schools have traditionally had to have 180 days of class, the state dropped that number to 175.

While state mandates, school districting plans and all sorts of other issues were brought up, one thing Gutekanst and the committee wanted to make clear is that it’s going to be people's families that make or break the school year. Schools won’t be doing any temperature checks at the door, instead relying on parents to monitor their children. Unfortunately, this strategy has failed in the past.

School Committee Vice-Chair Andrea Longo Carter noted they will be asking parents to do a daily health checklist the school district will provide to them, but that “we’ve all heard stories of people breaking the 24-hour no-vomit, 24-hour no-fever-without-Motrin rule, and that just can’t fly any more. We all have to abide by more strict parameters when it comes to health, particularly this year.”

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