Up-Island schools shift toward in-person learning

Extending daily hours will depend largely on bus transportation.

West Tisbury School is returning to in-person learning.

Up-Island schools are starting their transition to mostly in-person learning, with remote options for students ongoing.

At an up-Island regional school district meeting Tuesday, principals from both the West Tisbury and Chilmark schools laid out their plans for bringing the majority of kids back into the building for almost a full day of school.

According to West Tisbury principal, Donna Lowell-Bettencourt, K-5 students will transition to five days of in-person learning on Nov. 2, and 6-8 students will switch back on Nov. 17.

Currently, Lowell-Bettencourt said students in grades K-5 are going to school in the building four days per week, with students in grades four and five starting into that phase most recently. For those kids, the transition would add an extra day to their school week.

For grades 6-8, those students start school two days per week this Friday, so the transition on Nov. 17 would add an extra three days per week for them.

Kids in grades K-3 will go to school from 9:10 am to 1:40 pm, and grades 4-8 will go from 8:10 am to 2:40 pm.

Lowell-Bettencourt said she can’t commit to exact times for pickup and dropoff as of now because schools are still working out their transportation plans together.

“Of course, anytime you put out a date, everything is still being advised by the metrics of the Island,” she said.

Committee chair Alex Salop wondered whether the transition to more schooling in the buildings would change the distancing protocols or any other health procedures involved with COVID-19.

Lowell-Bettencourt said none of the health standards will change for either students or staff. 

“We built our plan for the return to school so that if kids are 100 percent remote, that can happen, and if kids are 100 perent in the building, that can happen,” she said.

Committee member Robert Lionette asked if there is a goal to get students in grades K-3 to a five hour day, to which Lowell-Bettencourt replied she would rather have a consistent dropoff time for all kids because of the size and layout of the West Tisbury school parking lot. She said pickup times will continue to be staggered based on grade.

Currently, Lowell-Bettencourt said there are around 350 students enrolled at West Tisbury, and a little over 300 of those kids are coming in-person. 

Based on those numbers, she said the school is looking at the safest and most effective way for students to get picked up by parents and school buses.

“Keeping those staggered times is essential to keeping that process safe,” she said,

For cohort C students who require additional support, some of them are in remote cafes in the school because of connectivity issues. But when students return to in-person learning, Lowell-Bettencourt said those students would be able to return to their classrooms.

Some students in the younger grades receive services before and after the normal school day, and those services would still be available, she said. 

For the Chilmark School, principal Susan Stevens said that currently all of Chilmark students are back in school. Starting on Nov. 6, the school will be adding Fridays to the school week for a full five days of schooling. 

She said kids are coming in at staggered dropoff times, and are entering the building nearest to their assigned classrooms, so as to prevent backup of student foot traffic.

Students who receive additional services outside the normal school day will continue to receive those resources.

Stevens added that the majority of kids are going to school from 9:10 am to 1:40 pm, and the school is working with bus transportation to see if those hours can be extended by one hour either in the morning or afternoon.

“We will have to see when the buses leave the high school so they can come to the up-Island schools,” Stevens said.

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said he is meeting with MVRHS transportation department head Marc Rivers to discuss options soon.

Stevens added that, because there are so many siblings that attend the Chilmark School, it will be difficult for parents to drop off their children at different times if they are in different grades.

“We want to come up with one time for everyone eventually,” she said.

Committee member Skipper Manter asked what mechanisms are in place to determine if school has to close back down again.

Salop said COVID numbers of the Island community will help officials make the decision about in-person learning, along with guidelines laid out by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
“If there is an issue in school, we would certainly defer to our heads of school to make decisions that are in the best interest of the children,” Salop said.

D’Andrea noted that each situation is unique, and just because the Island population starts to see an uptick in COVID cases doesn’t necessarily mean everything should be closed down.

Stevens said one issue she has seen is that, when children are distanced, some of the things they normally do like playing games with other students can’t happen.

“There is a lot of time spent in seats, and there isn’t much movement in the classroom,” Stevens said. “Their [the students’] stamina for being still is one issue if we are going to be adding more hours to the school day.”

As a school therapist, Melissa Mahoney said she would be happy to provide “movement breaks” or ideas for movement breaks for students in class so their days could be less sedentary.

“Students can reach out and we can provide activities for them to do at their desk or next to their desk so they can still move and be distanced,” Mahoney said.