High school will shift to hybrid education

With increased case counts, remote learning will continue until after Thanksgiving.

Principal Sara Dingledy, shown here at the 2019 graduation, said because of an uptick in COVID-19 cases on the Island, it's not the appropriate time to go to hybrid education. - Gabrielle Mannino

The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School will shift to a hybrid model on Nov. 30, depending on case counts and evaluation of community spread by health officials.

Initially, Principal Sara Dingledy said at Monday’s school committee meeting, she anticipated switching to a hybrid model sooner, but because of recent increased case counts and possible community transmission taking place in younger cohorts, now would not be an appropriate time to make the switch.

“Over the course of the past week, there have been a number of COVID cases, an uptick on the Island,” Dingledy said, “with members of the school community possibly socializing in unsafe ways.”

The committee approved a motion to return to the hybrid model on Nov. 30, but officials made it clear after significant deliberation that the health and safety committee would inform that decision based on Island case counts and other potential developments.

In the hybrid proposal that was accepted by a narrow majority of school committee members, the general student population will be split in half, with one cohort attending in-person education with teachers on Monday and Wednesday, and a second cohort attending in-person on Tuesday and Thursday. Friday is planned to be an entirely remote learning day, where students can receive additional support or possibly participate in virtual lectures. While one cohort is receiving in-person instruction, the other cohort would be engaging in asynchronous work, and vice versa.

“This will allow us to capitalize on the in-person experience of the students who are with the teacher,” Dingledy said.

She added that school officials on the health and safety committee were looking at ways to implement a testing plan that would allow students to return to school entirely in-person, but that plan is still being worked out.

According to Dingledy, the school has surveyed parents, students, staff, and teachers about whether they would rather return to a hybrid model, or remain remote.

The survey data shows that 46.1 percent out of 596 respondents suggested continuing in the mostly-remote model, while 53.2 percent of respondents suggested moving into a more in-person model. 

Dingledy said the school divided the two general population cohorts by student profiles, and there could be working groups in the future to determine how to best split up the kids. “We didn’t want all the same student profiles in one cohort, so we are figuring out a way to artfully divide those groups of students,” she said.

Students who require additional support would access learning cafes on days when the alternating cohorts are either in the classroom or learning asynchronously from home.

Dingledy stressed that she is concerned about the perception that remote learning is going to be a long-term solution for the high school. She said she and other school officials are fully aware that “the best place for kids is in the building with their peers and teachers.”

But with the most recent developments on-Island, Dingledy said she is concerned about making the switch too soon, without all the necessary safety precautions wholly fleshed out before bringing more students and teachers back into school.

“I exceedingly worry about quarantine orders, parties, and our capacity to investigate and enforce our expectations around social distancing and other health measures, both inside and outside of school,” Dingledy said.

Dingledy said she would put out a survey to families asking them whether they would opt into an entirely remote model instead of a hybrid, and “see how everything shakes out after the Thanksgiving holiday.”

Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said the health and safety committee voted down the plan, not because they thought it wasn’t a safe and viable course of action, but because “it simply wasn’t the right time to implement it.

D’Andrea added that health officials strongly believe that there should be a testing plan in place before bringing kids and staff back to the school in greater numbers.

“The task force that is working on the testing is making significant progress. I do anticipate that we will be able to present a draft plan on Thursday evening,” he said.

Edgartown health agent and member of the health and safety committee Matt Poole said he is aware of Gov. Charlie Baker’s urge for schools to return to in-person learning as soon as possible, but said that the events of the past week are materialising in the form of increased case counts, and a shift toward the red for the Island community. 

“This question arose at the absolute worst point in time. We are currently right on the margin between yellow and red,” Poole said. “This next week will really determine what the local color is, and what level of community transmission we are seeing.”

Committee member Mike Watts said he wants to see an “objective number” that will determine when kids should be allowed in school, and when they should be kept home in a remote model.

“Someone needs to put a stake in the sand and say a positivity rate for the Island above this number means this, and a positivity rate below this number means this,” he said.

But Tisbury health agent and member of the health and safety committee Maura Valley said even if those numbers were going into the red, how that affects the school population depends on what is driving the increase in cases. “Just because the numbers are high doesn’t mean it would have an adverse effect on the school,” Valley said.

“We are going to come up with a metric that works for our Island community, because we can’t look at it as the state looks at it, as six individual towns,” Valley said.

Island parent Celia Gillis said she is “embarrassed and ashamed” that the school has not yet brought more students back into the building.

She said school officials should apologize to students for doing them “such a huge disservice” by postponing in-person learning due to a “small uptick.”

Gillis related the school committee’s past decisions to have kids remain in remote learning to them seeking alternative social outlets like parties and large gatherings.

“I really wish you had said, ‘We take some responsibility for these kids seeking some other social outlets,’ because you have robbed them of every opportunity,” Gillis said.

She said keeping students home during the school day has normalized stay-at-home learning, and said kids are used to “rolling out of bed” and going to class. 

“That’s what kids want to do now, and I am going to let my kids do it, because you guys have failed them. I don’t know how you can sleep at night,” Gillis said.

But parent Gwyneth Wallace said she “respectfully disagrees” with Gillis, and said she believes it would be a disservice to send students back to school under possibly dangerous circumstances. “I don’t think you have done these kids a disservice at all. I think it would be a disservice to put kids in harm’s way at this point, when things are changing so dramatically,” Wallace said.

She said she knows of many students who are well-settled in their remote learning setting, and “some are even thriving in remote learning.”

Parent Patti Favreau asked whether the responses in the survey varied depending on students and families of color or disadvantaged students. “I want to make sure a decision isn’t being made without consideration of potential disparate impact,” Favreau said.

She stressed the importance of having ongoing dialogue regarding racial issues, and continuing the work that Dhakir Warren began during the summer. “Can we continue getting kids together during this really volatile time to talk about issues regarding race and the political divide that is happening? Because some of the isolation that kids of color feel could be dealt with by continuing some of the conversations that Dhakir started over the summer,” Favreau said.

Dingledy said the school looks forward to continuing those conversations.

Student Leo Neville said he thinks remote learning is having a negative impact on “academically motivated” students, because students can cheat more easily, and the more advanced students stand out less.

“Cheating is easier more than ever nowadays, and teachers that I have talked to have unanimously reported higher test scores on open-note tests than ever before, setting up the academically advanced for failure because they aren’t standing out anymore,” he said.