The School Committee Tuesday moved from the phased reopening frying pan toward the fire.
After a deliberate and relatively smooth process, culminating with the decision to expand first and second grades by one classroom each and restore full in-person school in mid-March, the committee turned to Job Lane School.
It’s more complicated there.
Summarizing at the close of the Lane discussion, School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol said five choices have emerged: Do nothing. Bring back all of grades 3-5. Return only the third grade for now. Bring back only students designated as struggling. Or return all third graders plus struggling fourth and fifth graders. “I would want a process to bring back struggling students,” said committee member Ann Guay. The discussion will continue at the Feb. 23 committee meeting.
Resources are also an issue, Brosgol pointed out. The plan calls for an additional six or seven teachers. Teaching assistants who are upgraded will have to be replaced. (Two classroom teachers and a special educator will be added to the Davis School staff.)
Lane School Principal Rob Ackerman said “we have space for seven new classrooms. It’s the space within the rooms that teachers are concerned about.” In answer to a question from committee member Sarah Scoville, he said students will not be seated near noisy classroom heating units.
A recent survey demonstrated that 75-80 percent of families want to return to school four days a week, Ackerman said. But he added there also is a “pretty clear divide” on the subject of moving students to new rooms or teachers, which is a byproduct of a full student return.
Ackerman said if students return four days a week, there’s no chance of retaining the current hybrid model, in which two cohorts alternate in-school and remote, each for two days.
“We wanted to hear teachers’ voices,” he said. “It’s too challenging for teachers having kids in their class two days and also kids there four days. It’s too difficult to keep the curriculum consistent. It’s asking way too much of our staff to do that.” He added that he also doesn’t support a segregated class of only hybrid learners.
He said the biggest challenge is the need for some students to change teachers. “The kids have bonded with their teachers; that’s a hard thing,” he said, adding, “The teachers don’t want kids to leave.” The principal said some classroom populations could safely be expanded to 22 students. But even that wouldn’t eliminate the need to shift as many as 35 students per grade to accommodate a full return.
Ackerman added that the teachers are reluctant to have the entire student population return en masse.
A virtual meeting with parents to further explore the possibilities is scheduled for late Thursday afternoon.
The committee also discussed ways to increase the in-school population at John Glenn Middle School and Bedford High School. Conrad said he expects BHS Principal Heather Galante to attend the next committee meeting on Feb. 23.
School Superintendent Philip Conrad said those families have been asked to commit to their specific cohort “so spaces can be utilized and maximized.” Conrad said available spaces are being filled with students identified as struggling under the guidelines of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
A few weeks ago, he related, 83 students with learning needs considered moderate were invited to return to four-day-a-week learning at BHS, and 66 assented. At the middle school, there were 61, and another 60 have since been invited.
School Committee member Ann Guay said she has been told that there are classes at BHS with two, three, or four students, plus 15 to 20 learning online. “I feel bad we not pushing more kids in since the beginning of the year. There has to be a pathway forward,” she stated. “We need to aggressively get kids in that building who need to be there or want to be there, if for nothing else than to make the building feel alive.”
Committee member Brad Morrison said he would like to hear the reasons why so many students are opting out of in-person attendance. BHS senior Ryan Doucette, the student representative to the School Committee, shared some personal explanations.
“I don’t like going to school and not seeing my friends. I don’t want to be in school four days a week and know that’s how I ended senior year,” he said. “My sister (in ninth grade) doesn’t even know what the school community feels like. And it’s going to continue to be weird and people who won’t feel included until we all back.”
He also pointed out that “there’s a group of students who actually see themselves doing better online.”
Doucette acknowledged that “there also a lot of students staying home so they can play video games, but I feel an across-the-board decision still won’t fix that. I know administrators, teachers, and the Counseling Department are reviewing grades and are worried about students.” Guay said she is concerned about whether next year the “ability to continue as students” could be compromised.
It’s particularly difficult for seniors, Doucette observed. “There’s no prom, there’s no stuff that they do at the end of senior year. As much as the school’s doing — and it’s phenomenal – it’s just that morale is low. People are not enthusiastic to be a student this year,” underclassmen as well as seniors.
“It sounds like there’s a problem with increasing the morale,” Morrison commented. “The premise has been getting kids back might solve that problem. That premise may be wrong.” His colleague JoAnn Santiago pointed out that “senior year is completely different. Kids have looked forward to taking part in activities – and they just have nothing.”
“We need to make that school feel like it’s a school full of kids. What can we do as a committee to encourage that?” Brosgol posed.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 781-983-1763