Schools aim to expand in-person learning

Most students would head back to classrooms next month if town committees approve.

Superintendent Matt D'Andrea, shown here at at a 2019 meeting, says the time has come for students to return to in-person learning in Island public schools. - Gabrielle Mannino

The All-Island School Committee (AISC) hopes to bring more students back to in-person learning in November. While kindergarten through third grade students are already in school and grade 4 students are expected to return to school next week. Given the constantly favorable COVID-19 indicators on the Island, superintendent Matt D’Andrea said conditions are good to bring middle and high school students back to school.

D’Andrea first thanked the school committee, staff, parents, and students for making current in-person learning go smoothly. He explained that the progressive phase-in that was first put in motion in August has been going well and gave his reasons for why returning to in-person learning was the right option.

COVID-19 indicators on the Island have been in the green for a long time and continue to be in the green, D’Andrea said.

Island health officials were on hand to update school committee members on COVID-19.

The state of Massachusetts isolates data by town, but Tisbury health agent Maura Valley explained that the boards of health will continue analyzing statistics for the Island as a whole to monitor how the infection is spreading. “We’re one Island, we’re one community.” Valley said.

Chilmark health agent Marina Lent provided more details on how the board of health is monitoring the infection by following not one but four metrics: Number of new cases in the past two weeks, cases per 100,000 inhabitants, test positivity rate, and the percentage of linked cases, which aims to have at least 80% of those who test positive already identified as close contacts to others known to have COVID-19.  

“One metric is never sufficient” to assess how well the infection is being controlled, Lent explained. “If all four metrics are pointing in the same direction then we have fair security that this is the policy foundation that we need to make good decisions. And currently the policy foundation looks awfully good. I have to say I was expecting worse over the past summer.”

Even when schools welcome more students, D’Andrea said he “will continue to utilize the board of health metrics to monitor the virus.” 

Another reason D’Andrea gave to justify a return to in-person learning was that national trends show that case rates have remained low for both students and staff in schools. 

Finally, D’Andrea explained that the well-being of students, more specifically “the psychological, emotional, educational health of our students” is at stake. “We’ve got to bring them back, we can bring them back, we can safely bring them back, and I think it is important that we do exactly that,” D’Andrea said. 

The school committee aims to bring middle schoolers back four or five days a week and bring back the high school students under a hybrid model. D’Andrea said he would have liked to be able to bring the high school “back in full,” but due to the social distancing requirements that scenario is not possible. 

No vote was sought on the issue; instead individual town committees and the high school committee will vote on D’Andrea’s plan. D’Andrea explained that though they will try to maintain as much consistency as possible in regards to protocols between schools and all schools would maintain six feet social distancing, the exact plans would depend on each building’s personnel and space. 

The issue of the length of school days also came up. D’Andrea said he hoped for a full day of school to be implemented for middle school and high school but exact start and finish times remain to be determined, especially given challenges around transportation since school buses can only be filled to a third of capacity. 

D’Andrea also said that he wanted to ensure that whatever the final plans end up being, he did not want the cohort of fully remote students, or cohort D, to have to change teachers or learning groups as students transition to in-person learning. 

Protocols are being drafted and will be given out next week to parents in the event that someone tests positive. 

Kimberley Kirk, chair of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee, read a letter from Tisbury teacher Tamzin Partridge. In the letter, Partridge voiced concerns about the effect returning to in-person learning would have on both students’ and teachers’ well-being. 

“While I admit to having a deep desire to see all of our students more regularly, I am hesitant to do so when the risk to our physical and mental health is so great. We are in the second wave of COVID-19. Boston public schools have already had to close their doors … Is now really the best time to talk about this?” 

Partridge’s letter also talked about the difficulties students can face when going through abrupt changes. “It takes a very long time for students to build routines, to get comfortable with classroom practices, remote or otherwise, and to adjust to any sudden shifts in teaching or learning, or changes to their environments. It takes teachers twice as long to build these things back up once they have been dismantled or disrupted again.” 

Finally, Partridge stressed the mental health toll teachers currently incur. “These repeated conversations affect our daily ability to perform for our kids. Teachers have to be positive and have the energy to meet the demands of teaching today. This kind of stress really prohibits that.” 

In other business, the committee unanimously adopted an anti-racism resolution put forth by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC). The resolution was previously shared with the NAACP of Martha’s Vineyard executive committee and general membership, and passed both bodies unanimously. Marie Doubleday, the second vice president of Martha’s Vineyard NAACP, said “we are looking forward to working with the school system.” 

“I feel it’s important, at least for the time being, to have a section of this agenda every meeting to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion. I would like to continue with that,” Robert Lionette, chair of the All-Island School Committee, said.

Lionette said he would like to examine the diversity of AISC itself during next week’s meeting and suggested AISC, following MASC rules, could appoint non-voting, non-elected members to sit on the committee or any sub-committees. “This resolution, as important as it is, cannot be seen as a token gesture,” Lionette said.