Up-Island schools support in-person learning for young students

Seeking an Islandwide approach, administrators also look at individual town options. 

The layout of the West Tisbury school is conducive to adhering to health protocols during the pandemic. – Lucas Thors

Island schools seek to strike a balance between quality of education, and optimal health and safety standards for reopening, as the individual needs of towns are put in context with a unified Island approach.

Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens said at an Up-Island regional school committee meeting on Wednesday that she is worried that the childcare necessary for younger kids in a hybrid or remote-learning model could expose them to more disease, and possibly bring those diseases into school with them. 

For any type of remote model, Stevens said, she is concerned about younger kids in kindergarten and first grade. 

“Putting those little kids on devices is going to be very difficult. They can’t really do anything independently,” Stevens said. “I would prefer starting those younger ones in with the special needs students. We have the rooms, we have the teachers.”

West Tisbury School Principal Donna Lowell-Bettencourt said the design of the West Tisbury school is conducive to many of the requirements for health and safety. She said there are many doors and windows that can be left open to maximize airflow.

Lowell-Bettencourt agreed with Stevens, saying that data show how younger students who are put in daycare programs are exposed to a wider range of possible contagions. 

She also said she is concerned about parents having to find a place for their young child to be when they are at work. 

“In terms of making very difficult choices and the many parents I have heard from, the problem has been in the lower grades. And it has been work and a paycheck and putting a meal on the table — just finding a place for their student to be when school is not in session,” Lowell-Bettencourt said.

She added that the West Tisbury School will offer food for every day of the year in a grab-and-go style. Students engaged in all models will be able to get lunch, and the state has applied for a waiver to provide free lunch to all students. 

Lowell-Bettencourt said that for her school, bringing younger students back as soon as possible is a possibility based on the size and layout of the building. She said that students could use the outside doors connected to many of the classrooms, instead of traveling through the building. 

“We don’t need to split up the younger kids, with the size and layout of our building,” Lowell-Bettencourt said. 

Dr. Jeff Zack, the school physician on the health and wellness committee, said that maintaining balance between education and health is complex, but achievable. He said consistency is key in developing a strong system, especially for younger children. 

“Consistency is key; if we start school and have to stop it, and start and stop, that’s no good. We really only have to look at the colleges that just went back two weeks ago to understand that they went back for a week and now they are canceling classes for the semester. That’s not what we want to do,” Zack said. 

Zack highlighted testing as one key to having a strong and successful program, and having the resiliency to continue providing consistent education to students if there is a positive case in school. “We have the ability, I think, to be able to pull this off here,” he said.

Up-Island school committee chair Kate DeVane said that the way she sees it, the two principals are able to bring students in grades K-5 back to in-person learning full-time, just as successfully as they would be able to do a hybrid.

West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson advised schools to “be careful” when reopening, in order to prevent an outbreak. He also suggested maintaining consistency across town borders. “I honestly feel that we need to be consistent throughout the Island, that we have a unified plan,” Johnson said.

Chilmark health agent Marina Lent agreed with Johnson, saying, “We don’t want to be distracted and held back by dissatisfaction over why so-and-so does this and why so-and-so does that.”

When DeVane asked Superintendent Matt D’Andrea whether bringing younger students back full-time, in-person right away would be feasible for other schools, he said that it would be more challenging for certain buildings. “I very much support the unified argument. If one district goes ahead and says they are going to do something different, it puts the other districts in a very difficult spot,” D’Andrea said. “Then they may start to force things that increase the risk for the entire Island, by trying to put kids in too fast. Phasing in together, I believe, is the best for everyone across the Island.”

But D’Andrea said that schools across the Island are talking about bringing younger students back right away. “I understand that kindergarten and first grade need to be in front of their teachers as much as possible. We are really looking at striking a balance between education and health,” he said.

Committee member Alex Salop said that he doesn’t want to “throw the baby out with the bath water” by being overly cautious.

“The finger is being tipped on the safety balance, versus our students’ well-being, and for that matter, their families’ well-being. It would certainly be preferable to understand what other school districts are looking at, and work in concert with everyone,” Salop said.