Elementary schools revise reopening plan

New program seeks to support high-need students and provide more synchronous learning.

Elementary school officials are taking a different approach to reopening. — Lucas Thors

The Island elementary schools are taking a different approach to school reopening by rethinking the way student cohorts get reintroduced to in-person learning.

Assistant Superintendent Richie Smith said at an All-Island School Committee meeting Thursday that school administrators are looking to “better support a developmentally sound program for our youngest children, to reduce significant reliance on asynchronous instruction, and to include as many cohort D children with their peers and teachers as possible.”

Smith said this approach will get younger and high-needs students back in their classrooms as soon as possible, and will look more closely at students in Cohort D, which contains students and families who opt for remote-only education. 

“We are grouping students in grades K-4 as one cohort, and grades 5-8 as another cohort. The K-4 cohort in this proposal would be live in-person four days a week, with one synchronous or asynchronous remote day of instruction each week,” Smith said. “The 5-8 cohort is live in-person one day a week, with four days a week of synchronous remote instruction.”

Synchronous education involves teachers instructing students directly in real time, whether over a Zoom call or in an in-person class. Asynchronous instruction requires that students complete work independently through playlist-style assignments. A teacher recording themselves doing a lesson would be an example of asynchronous instruction. Both synchronous and asynchronous instruction can be taught remotely or in-person.

Under the proposed plan, Smith said grades K-4 would be in school Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They would receive remote instruction on Wednesday. The grade 5-8 cohort, according to Smith, would receive synchronous remote instruction on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. 

“On the day that K-4 is not in the building, 5-8 would be in school,” Smith said. 

Cohort C, in both the original plan and the newly proposed plan, consists of children with specialized needs, whether it be kids who are having challenges getting internet access, or who have an individualized education program (IEP).

Smith said student learning in this cohort would be tailored to fit individual needs.

“For cohort C, we are trying to have in-person instruction every day of the week, although the amount of days per week is going to be based on individualized plans and student needs,” Smith said.

In the previous plan, Smith said there were some concerns over how much asynchronous (playlist learning, not real time) there was. 

This approach would provide more face-to-face communication with teachers for students who are learning remotely.

When schools look at staffing for grades K-4, Smith said they are looking at self-contained classes — meaning one teacher teaches the entire day of all the core subjects.

“Licensing with generalist teachers enables them to teach math, social studies, science, and English. When we start getting into older grade levels, we start looking at a departmentalized situation,” Smith said. “My wife is a language arts teacher, and I won’t say anything bad about her math skills because she does our bills, but I am not sure she has the skill set to deliver a math program, and we would have more of a challenge staffing that.”

As for the timeline of school reopening, which was a concern for some families and staff in the last plan, administrators are looking at having cohort C come into school on Sept. 17. 

This cohort would contain high needs students, and students in Project Headway (pre-kindergarten). Cohort C would return to school in-person “up to five days a week,” according to Smith, based on individual needs.

On Sept. 29, grades K-1 would return to full in-person learning four days a week. On Oct. 13, grades 2-3 would make the shift. On Oct. 27, students in fourth grade in down-Island schools, and grades 4-5 in up-Island schools, would be introduced to in-person learning four days a week. In that same week, Smith said grades 6-8 at the West Tisbury School and grades 5-8 at other Island schools would receive in-person learning one day per week. 

“Right out of the chute, our youngest children will have an abbreviated day, because in a traditional year when our kindergarteners arrive, they do half a day, then work toward a full day over time,” Smith said.

He continued to say that this model removes the two to three days of asynchronous “independent, self-paced lessons,” and allows for almost exclusive live teacher and peer interaction, with some asynchronous learning.

“Instead of grades K-4 going two days a week, they will be in the schools four days a week. Grades 5-8 would be reduced to one day in-person, but would have four days of synchronous learning,” Smith said.

He also said the model will ease the transition of cohort D children, “at least at the 5-8 level,” back into the in-person model, because they will have had the same teacher, content, and class throughout the remote model.

Committee member Kate DeVane said she thinks the plan is a “huge improvement” from the prior plan, and is pleased with how hard the administration has worked to provide more in-school time for the students who really need it.

She said she is still concerned about cohort C, and who is going to make the decision as to how many days those kids are in school.

“With IEPs, that’s one thing, but what about English language learners (ELL) and kids who maybe don’t have remote access?” DeVane wondered.

Committee member Robert Lionette wondered whether principals have the ability to determine which students would qualify under the umbrella of cohort C. Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said he doesn’t see that as a unilateral decision by one person, and it would be a collective team decision between families, administration, and staff.

Smith said that, in the new model, schools would be frequently assessing the stamina of students and staff in order to determine next steps.

He noted that as administrators seek to bolster one area of instruction, another area is “invariably influenced, sometimes in a negative way.”

“Our desire to have K-4 students in schools does reduce our ability to have 5-8 kids in schools,” he said. 

Both Smith and D’Andrea stressed that the new plan has been informed by community surveys of teachers, families, and other school staff, and has the support of the school health and wellness committee.