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School Committee holds virtual open house

While this tent was great for social distancing, because it can’t handle snow, it’s not going to be much help in the near future.

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Now three months into the hybrid system of learning, on Saturday, the Needham School Committee held a virtual open house on Zoom, as a forum for parents to discuss what they felt was working - and what they felt was not - so far in regards to the school year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, high marks were given to the in-person learning days, while the virtual learning days had some complaints.

One of the first things Superintendent Dan Gutekanst did was discuss how space would soon become even more of an issue as the winter weather closes in. While giving a brief snapshot of what in-person learning looks like in the social-distancing era, he showed a photo of the outdoor tents the schools have been using for added distancing. Unfortunately, he noted that because the tents can’t handle the load of snow, those may not be in use much longer. This lack of space presents an issue to increasing the student body, in terms of a full return to school; having two thirds of students in person learning; or even allowing all the fully remote students to join the hybrid cohort. Gutekanst also applauded Needham's teachers, and noted that while there is still a shortage on technology nationwide as schools buy up all the items, Needham had recently purchase some iPads for their teachers to have two screens they could use at once.

The main thing the committee wanted to do, though, was react to a survey given to Needham parents about what was working, and what was not working, in terms of the hybrid model of learning that has been implemented. While they would delve into more specifics, the general consensus was that any live teaching, be it in person or via a live Zoom feed, was much preferred to the online-only learning.

A collection of survey answers about what’s not going well and what would improve it.

While this was likely not a surprising result, Gutekanst wanted to once again reiterate that the pandemic is the reason the schools are having to do such different things and that “the school committee did not decide: 'Hey, let’s throw all this out and try something different.'” He explained that he has been meeting weekly, on Monday evenings, with the Joint Committee on Health and Safety, and noted that while he knows the state’s new guidance is pushing for a return to fully in-person school and that Needham is currently in the “green,” this is due to a change in the metrics. Had the metrics not changed and the old system was still in use, Needham would be in the red.

A collection of survey answers about what is going well.

One thing not helping is that while Needham schools push the four W’s (wash your hands, wear a mask, watch your distance, and wait for your test results), both students and teachers have noted that physicians have told them if the test is only out of an abundance of caution, they can go to school without first receiving their test results. This is precisely the opposite of what Needham Schools have been preaching.

While acknowledging that “a school is at its core a social place,” Superintendent Gutekanst pointed out that although in practice, distancing in Needham's schools is usually six feet, Needham has been trying to be practical by allowing a three-foot distance, while neighboring communities are strict about it being six feet.

In terms of town resident comments and questions, one parent noted that she would be willing to drive her currently bussed student if it meant getting more kids back for in person learning, and believed many more families would be willing to do the same. This idea sought to alleviate the hurdle of requiring what Gutekanst declared as “a fleet of buses,” should all the students return to full in-person learning, to abide by social distancing rules.

A less cordial question came from a resident who felt he’d been duped when deciding to enroll his student in the all-remote cohort. He pointed out that he is now being told there’s no guarantee his child can return to in-person learning, and even if they were to, there’s no guarantee they would be allowed to go to their neighborhood school. While he didn’t think it would be an issue for that many students, Gutekanst basically acknowledged the man was correct. The School Committee didn’t understand at the beginning of the school year how difficult it would be to transition students back and forth, and that while for only one year, there is absolutely a possibility the remote students will not be allowed to learn, in-person, in their neighborhood schools.

Many residents were extremely upset with the quality of the remote learning for elementary school students. One mother specifically pointed out that the “Eureka Math” videos her kids are learning from are designed for teachers and as supplements for use in conjunction with live learning. She noted that her daughter is crying every day and that she’d rather just let her kid play than waste her time with the videos, declaring: “If they’re not learning anything, I get it, it’s a pandemic, and I will let her play outside.”

She encouraged Gutekanst to watch the videos himself, but was interrupted for taking too long without asking a clear question. However, the next town resident who spoke essentially reiterated how bad the videos are, and pressed Gutekanst to hire a college student to teach the kids math instead. Meanwhile, another parent - who noted that the videos her kids are forced to watch will often break into commercials that border on inappropriate - asked whether a parent could teach the kids, given that it’s elementary level math.

These would be interesting ideas, although it’s unclear if they would be possible. Gutekanst noted that it’s tough to find teachers right now, and that he even did lunch duty at one point, wiping down tables because Needham schools are so shorthanded. It’s also unclear if the teachers union would allow these non-union educators to teach the children. Gutekanst had previously explained that while there may be a perception that the teachers unions are getting in the way of students' learning, he feels that’s not the case.

A few ideas were quickly shot down, however. When one father accused the committee of using the lack of space as an "excuse," Gutekanst said they would not be looking to expand into the library or any other town spaces (which the father had suggested), as they’d already determined they don’t have any available space outside of the schools. Another thing they would not be doing is changing the schedule, although some students are currently getting only four days of in-person learning in both December and February, which is about half the in-person learning days the other cohort has.

While it may seem much longer, we’re still just three months into the school year. Needham will undoubtedly have make changes to its school plans going forward as the town adapts to the wrenches COVID throws into the gears of their best laid plans.

On Saturday morning, the School Committee laid out their choices and explained the rationale behind them. Whether you agreed with their decisions or not, they certainly provided some clear transparency about why they were made in the first place.

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