Island wants more information on reopening

When will school buses roll? That's a question that's still being determined. -Gabrielle Mannino

School officials, teachers, and parents are looking for more in-depth information about the metrics used to create a timeline for returning to in-person education, and what fully remote and in-person models would look like.

During Monday’s All-Island School Committee meeting, a few questions dominated the discussion — most of which had to do with the impetus behind keeping some students out of school buildings until Oct. 27.

Island school administrators continue to get pushback from parents surrounding the far-off date that some students may be returning to school, and the lack of concrete metrics that inform that timeline.

The current proposed reopening plan (which must be voted on by each individual school district) still has students going to a remote learning model on Sept. 17, with all students back in the physical buildings by Oct. 27. Under the proposed plan, K-2 (K-3 for the up-Island district) students would transition to a hybrid learning model on Sept. 29. Grades 3-5 would switch to the hybrid on Oct. 13, and students in grades 6-8 and all high schoolers would transition on Oct. 27.

As of now, schools would utilize four cohorts: Students in cohorts A and B would be fully engaged in the hybrid model. Cohort A would attend school in person on Monday and Tuesday, and cohort B would attend school in person on Thursday and Friday. Cohort C would serve high-needs students who may require additional support, or may need to get back to in-person learning as soon as possible.

According to D’Andrea, families will have the ability to opt for remote-only education, and students would be assigned a teacher. Those students engaged in remote-only education may be able to participate in a program sponsored by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) online, which would be taught by a Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools teacher.

Committee member Kate DeVane said she doesn’t understand why, when you have students in the building on alternating days, there can’t be students learning remotely at the same time.

She said having teachers simultaneously streaming on Zoom while teaching classes in-person would expand the amount of instruction each week, and would connect students directly with their instructors, their peers, and the content of the course.

“I don’t understand the theory that you only get two days. I would not want to see a kid who is fully remote doing a completely separate program from their classmates who are taking in-person schooling,” DeVane said.

Committee member Amy Houghton asked whether there was an established plan for a full-remote model, noting that a hybrid model sees kids in physical school for two days out of the week, and families could be exposed to COVID-19 on any other day.

“If we don’t have a shelter-in-place order, there is nothing keeping kids and families from doing whatever they want and commingling,” Houghton said. 

She also said that certain priority populations might not have the ability to wait to get back to in-person schooling.

Committee member Alex Salop said he cannot support a plan that has all students back in physical school by the end of October, and stressed that the Vineyard is a unique community with a low case count.

“Martha’s Vineyard isn’t Georgia, it isn’t Texas, it isn’t California,” Salop said. “I can see us taking the time to open up remotely in September and moving toward a hybrid model or in-person toward the end of the month. I have heard no evidence for moving the start date back to the end of October.”

Salop also said there needs to be a contingency plan If someone does get sick in school, or if cases start to increase on the Island. He highlighted the need for a solid metric that will determine the risk factor for students, families, and teachers as they return to school.

“You can’t shut down the in-person part of the school almost indefinitely without demonstrable data to back up that decision,” Salop said. “Unless someone can present it to me, I cannot back this plan as currently stated.”

Until this week, the TestMV drive-through testing site at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) has only tested people over the age of 18, although symptomatic tests at the hospital have been given to minors. 

Now, minors can go and get swabbed just as an adult would. 

According to D’Andrea, school committees can implement policy changes that would mandate COVD-19 testing for in-person learning, although remote education would need to be offered should a family refuse testing. 

DeVane said that even with consistent and expedient testing, the nature of COVID-19 makes it difficult to trace and contain those who may have already had contact with others.

“The important part to me is not how many days kids go to school, but what they are doing outside of school. If we are not paying attention to what our children are doing, or we are going on vacations and are not checking in with the school system, we might as well be a completely different community, because we will be exposing ourselves to a different community,” DeVane said.

School physician Dr. Jeff Zack said that the system is inevitably going to change, and mistakes will be made, no matter how comprehensive the reopening plan is. He said the systematic and well-thought ways in which teachers deliver instruction on the Island will need to change in order to adapt to a new dynamic.

“You guys are great cooks, now let me throw you in a different kitchen, try to make the soufflé now. We are going to screw up, it doesn’t matter how we do it. Something is going to go wrong, it is important to set that expectation early. One thing we understand about this virus is that every week it changes,” Zack said.

In response to the many questions regarding the reason for holding off on in-person learning, D’Andrea said that the schools could bring back students earlier, but the health and wellness subcommittee (comprised of school nurses, doctors, and health officials) has suggested a phased approach in order to prevent a large-scale outbreak.

MVRHS Principal Sara Dingledy said the school measured every room in the building, and the facilities would still be short 100 places if the current social distancing of six feet was implemented.

The current deadline for Island schools to submit their plan to the state is Thursday, Aug. 13, although D’Andrea said they could file for an extension. Another All-Island School Committee meeting will be held on that date, when members will be looking for a greater understanding of the metrics for back-to-school, how they will be applied, and also consider fully-fleshed-out plans for in-person and fully remote learning. A survey is currently being circulated asking families and school members about remote learning, transportation, special education needs, and other information necessary for a safe reopening.