Students to be assigned to one of two major cohorts
By Jennifer L. Grybowski, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Students in Westborough will return to school Tuesday, Sept 8 to a hybrid model of instruction.
Superintendent Amber Bock and Assistant Superintendent Daniel Mayer presented a much-anticipated draft return-to-school plan to School Committee members at their meeting Wednesday night.
Students will be divided into two major cohorts – navy and cardinal – with an effort being made to assign siblings to the same cohort. Students in the cardinal cohort will attend school on campus Mondays and Wednesdays, and students in the navy cohort will attend school on campus Tuesdays and Thursdays. The cohorts will alternate half days on Friday mornings.
“We think this is a design that allows us to focus on providing meaningful at home instructional time,” Bock said. “It gives us some robust options to maximize the content.”
Students will receive instruction while on campus and will follow a schedule and complete focused work while at home; work might include things like virtual meetings with specialists or paraprofessionals, independent work, virtual group work, or work on learning sites. There will be no live casting from the classroom. Bock made it clear the home days are not days off and that work will be fully graded using the standards. Elementary students will receive up to three hours of work a day, middle school up to five hours and high school up to seven hours.
The staff will spend Friday afternoons planning, assessing, and working on professional development. Mayer said teaching remotely is a significant shift in instructional delivery, and studies show students do less well in an online environment. Therefore, a shift in pedagogical approach and a need for collaboration is needed to help faculty adjust.
For those who cannot send their students to school due to health issues, instruction will be provided through the Westborough Standalone Remote Learning Program (WSRLP), although the district is still mulling how to do that. One option is staffing this model with teachers who will not be returning to in-person teaching, another option is providing online curriculum and learning platform created by a third party, and another option is creating a shared program with surrounding towns utilizing resources and teachers who won’t be returning to the classroom.
Mayer also said that although there is a possibility all learning will move back to fully remote if the coronavirus numbers spike up again, it was important to at least start the year somewhat on campus.
“We are bringing them back to establish bonds with teachers and peers, which is critically important,” he said. “Remote learning is a whole different ballgame if there is no relationship to begin with. There are also concerns about being able to assess [students’] academic and emotional wellbeing so we can then form an instructional plan.”
Bock said that the Westborough Community Education Program (WCEP) is finalizing a lease at a local space that will allow the district to safely care for up to 250 students in a daycare-like manner. This care will be offered Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for students in grades K through six (although 4-year-olds of faculty members will be accepted). Priority for these 250 slots will be given to faculty.
“This is to provide reassurance to our staff they can focus on Westborough’s children because we are going to take care of their children,” Bock said. “I’m very excited the way WCEP is making a proposal that I think is very responsive to a need that’s been articulated in our community.”
At this program, students will be given support in completing school work, and enjoying socially-distanced activities.
The document also presents in extreme detail safety and sanitary protocols.
“It is important to realize that we’ve developed a strong set of mitigating strategies that greatly reduce the risk of infection and if there is one thing we’ve learned we have to be vigilant, flexible and have to care for each other,” Bock said.
Staff will be given packets that include masks, clear face shields and gloves. Students are expected to arrive to school with their own mask, but masks will be provided to those that arrive without them. Both students and staff will be trained in health and safety protocols and hand washing time and mask breaks will be incorporated into the day.
“We have seen students as young as 3 do well with masks,” Bock said.
The protocols include what happens if someone becomes ill or is exposed at school or at home. There will be an isolation room in each building if someone is suspected of being ill. Bock said the nurses’ offices will be implementing almost hospital-graded protocols.
Classrooms, which will now only have 9-12 students in them at a time, will be set up for 6-foot distancing, and signage is being installed to indicate safe distancing. There will be strategically placed sanitizer stations in schools, and water fountains will be shut down. Teams are working on arrival and departure management, planning to have teachers come in and out of rooms for older students instead of having the students switch rooms, and when switching is necessary, scheduling transitions to limit the numbers of students in the hallways at once. Principals are mapping out cafeterias and other spaces for lunches.
“We are trying to relieve the burden for teachers so they can teach,” Mayer said.
The custodial team has met with a consultant and been briefed and trained on new cleaning and sanitizing protocols, including running ionized misters at night. The HVAC system will be cleaned and filters replaced as necessary, and Bock said fresh air flow will be utilized as much as possible. In that spirit, she will be encouraging staff to take their students outside as appropriate for instruction and breaks.
“We will be leveraging the beautiful weather in September and October to do spacing and appropriate mask-free gatherings,” Bock said.
The team is still refining which students are in which cohort, and are working on the structure of the WSRLP. MIAA is delaying any sports practices for two weeks after school resumes, and will issue guidance on athletics after that. Bock said the team was still waiting on state guidance on several items, including locker rooms, library, playgrounds, fine and performance arts, athletics, clubs and activities, lunch/breakfast, transportation and more.
In the meantime, the draft proposal will be sent to staff and parents later this week through ConnectEd. People are encouraged to read it through, and then complete the accompanying survey. Bock and Mayer noted the survey was extremely important and time-sensitive. Results from the survey will be used to complete a final plan, which needs to be voted on and submitted to the state Aug. 12.
Bock encouraged people to contact administration with questions and concerns, but suggested people read the report and take a 24-hour breath to really digest it first. She said administration is also considering virtual coffee and conversation-themed chats to provide an opportunity to ask questions.
The next School Committee meeting is Wednesday, Aug. 12 at 6 p.m.