CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Hoosac Valley Regional School Committee approved a hybrid education model that would begin remotely.
Superintendent Aaron Dean presented months of planning during a remotely held School Committee meeting Monday and recommended the committee approve a plan that would combine both in-person and remote learning.
"I know this is hot on everybody's mind. It is hot on my mind. I don't sleep much these days working through all of the pieces," Dean said. "But we are going to do the best we can with all of this and figure it out."
Dean recommended the School Committee adopt a 2:3 hybrid model that would split the district into two cohorts at each grade level.
Cohort A will attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays and then engage in remote learning on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.
Students in Cohort B will engage in remote learning on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They would attend school on Thursday and Friday.
Siblings would be kept in the same cohort groups and deep cleanings will take place every Wednesday.
He said this model will keep the schools far from ever reaching capacity to ensure social distancing. Also, it would keep consistent cohorts per the request of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Dean said the plan is to start with a fully remote model and phase into the hybrid system.
"Our goal is to provide as much in-person instruction as possible to start but looking at everything ... I think it will make more sense for us to take a phased approach," he said.
The phased approach would both allow the district to stagger the return of students and for the students to acclimate to the "new normal."
"If you bring 1,100 students back at once without taking the time to educate and taking the time to ease into this, I don't see it having a good outcome," he said.
Dean provided a loose timeline that would really be determined by negotiations with the teachers' union and health metrics. He said if it is not safe to return students to school at a certain phase, they will continue to learn remotely. Conversely, they must be prepared to return back to remote learning at any time.
"We have to crawl before we walk and walk before we run," Dean said. "This gives us the opportunity to do that and access things each step of the way."
Phase 1 would begin on Aug. 31 with teachers returning to school in a staggered fashion to prepare their own classrooms and to participate in professional development preparing them for what is to come in the hybrid model.
Phase 2 would begin Sept. 15 with the bulk of the student population beginning remote learning. Special populations such as prekindergarten and kindergarten would return to classrooms.
Dean said the district understands that some families may have difficulties with the continued remote learning. He said for this reason they are exploring establishing learning centers where parents can leave their kids.
Phase 3 would begin Oct. 13 and Grades 1 through 4 and Grade 8 will return to school.
The full hybrid schedule will kick in on Oct. 26.
Dean said all students and staff will be required to wear masks. Families are expected to provide masks but the district has purchased some for students without.
There will be mask breaks throughout the day, hand sanitizer will be readily available, and hand washing will be encouraged.
Students will be spread out within the classrooms and larger alternative spaces such as the cafeteria may be repurposed for learning.
The district will not conduct temperature screenings and there will be no in-school testing although the district is working with local officials for testing options.
If a child is displaying symptoms or has been in contact with someone infected with the virus, families will be expected to keep their child home.
"Symptom checking daily is going to be important," Dean said. "If your child is coming in person you need to check for those symptoms. We all need to do our part. We are only as strong as our weakest link."
Dean said much has to be worked out with the unions including metrics in which in-person school is no longer viable. He said these conversations will be guided by incoming state data.
He could not share specifics, but noted the working threshold among superintendents in the county is a 5 percent transmission rate within a community. He said Berkshire County is around 2 or 3 percent and he did not know of any cases in Adams or Cheshire at the moment. Of course, he noted any given day this could all change.
On Tuesday, the state began implementing a metric system for cases per 100,000, with the expectation that school districts would start school in full or hybrid mode where there were five or fewer cases total. All of the Berkshires except for Pittsfield fell within those numbers.
Dean said they also explored a fully remote model and with around 30 percent of families indicating through a survey that they still would prefer remote learning, the district will run a remote academy for students who would make up another cohort.
"There has to be a real distinct difference in how we deliver remote learning compared to what we did in the spring," he said. "It was a situation where I think everybody worked really hard and they put things together ... but we have to learn from our lessons and design a platform that delivers."
Students will be asked to commit to the remote academy or the in-school model but would be allowed to switch in between the two.
Vulnerable teachers unable to attend school could also take advantage of the academy.
He said there are a few more hurdles to clear in terms of remote learning and that they are short about 200 devices. Also not all families have internet access. He said the district is working with the state and looking for grant opportunities to remedy this.
Full in-person schooling for the fall had been explored but found it would not be possible to keep 6 feet of social distancing.
Also, the added costs attributed to full in-person schooling — more supervisory staffing, personal protective equipment, increased transportation, and furniture — it would be additional $1.3 million.
The School Committee approved the plan, understanding that it may change with coming state guidance and forthcoming collective bargaining. The district must submit this plan by Friday.
There were more than 70 participants in the meeting and much of it was spent fielding specific questions from teachers and parents. This question-and-answer session was cut short after Dean said he planned to hold a separate forum with building leaders later this week to address lingering concerns.
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