Virtual “Hybrid” Models Could Include Rotating Physical Attendance to Reduce Class Sizes 

Amherst Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris to Present Options at June 3 Meeting

The Amherst Regional Public Schools and districts across Massachusetts are preparing for dramatic restructuring of school this fall, even as staff struggle to connect with some students who aren’t engaged in distance learning efforts. Statewide, school staffing changes are expected in coming months, as more teachers than usual seek early retirement, according to Glen Koocher, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. Budget shortfalls in some cities and towns could lead to school staff layoffs, which typically fall on the youngest and most recently hired. 

“Everyone is in great distress,” Koocher said, at a May 13 state Joint Education Committee hearing, which can be viewed here.

Districts are “in a battle to keep kids engaged,” Koocher said, and about one in four students can’t participate in distance learning because they lack internet connectivity or regular computer access. Teachers have reported that they have had to provide technical support to parents so that children participate in virtual meetings.

Districts are also trying to figure out how to best engage children online. Amherst Regional School Superintendent Michael Morris said during a May 20 panel (“Covid-19 K-12 Educational Impact: Policy, Equity and Implications for a Generation of Students”) that the district is finding that distance learning works better in small groups. When 20 children are in a single virtual meeting, the ability to engage and participate can be low. Teachers in Amherst are experimenting with small groups and “office-hour models,” he said. 

Overall, the roll-out of distance learning statewide after schools physically closed in March has been uneven, with noticeable differences between districts and within individual schools and grades. “There has been extraordinary variance going on in the Commonwealth,” said State Rep. Alice Piesch, D-Wellesley, at the May 13 hearing.

Thomas Scott, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said that distance learning capacity and resources vary greatly by district, and that, “One major takeaway is just how inequitable our student support systems really are.”

The amount of content delivered has depended on factors including students’ online attention spans and the ability of teachers to quickly shift to distance learning platforms. “We are learning and adapting as we go along … we will get better,” Scott said, adding that families are divided as to how much virtual teaching and homework they can manage. “Some parents don’t understand why we can’t provide a regular day of instruction,” he said.

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said that his department is looking at ways to “reduce that variance” in distance learning, although districts in Massachusetts typically operate with a high degree of independence. Riley suggested some testing in week three or four of physical school resumption to determine which students will need remedial help and of what kind. 

Questions remain about how districts will pay for a wide range of likely needs this fall, from added bus runs to restructured cafeteria services, face masks and other protective equipment. 

Meanwhile, parents and guardians might need to prepare for children to be on staggered attendance schedules. 

Morris acknowledged during the May 20 panel that it will be “next to impossible” to have a full complement of students physically in school from a public health standpoint. Districts might need to consider alternating in-person days for students and prioritizing the needs of certain children, including elementary pupils who are learning foundational skills and students with special needs that can’t be met well in a virtual environment. “This is an imperfect situation, and we’re going to have imperfect solutions,” Morris said.

Morris plans a presentation on the federal Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) school guidance and Amherst’s options for the fall at an Amherst Regional School Committee meeting (along with the local Amherst and Pelham committees) on Wednesday, June 3 at 6:30 p.m., to be livestreamed on Amherst Media Channel 15, here.   The presentation will also include an update on distance learning in Amherst and discussion of how to engage the public in planning for the fall.

“The decisions we collectively have to make are ones we haven’t considered before,” Morris said at Tuesday’s virtual school committee meeting. An additional regional committee meeting is set for June 23, with the likelihood of a stepped-up schedule through the summer.

A May 19 publication from the CDC recommends small, consistent groups of students kept with designated teachers to reduce infection risk; low numbers on school buses; staggered arrival times; and other major changes.

The CDC’s “Considerations for Schools” notes that the lowest risk of Covid infection is for students and teachers to engage in virtual-only classes, while more risk would involve small in-person classes, activities, and events with children staying at least six feet apart. The highest risk, for schools, according to the CDC, would be to hold full-sized in-person classes, with students seated normally and mixing during classes and activities. The guidelines pose the possibility of a hybrid model of virtual and in-person classes, along with staggered or rotating schedules to yield smaller class sizes.

Amherst and districts across Massachusetts still await guidelines for the fall from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We would have liked to have had that two weeks ago,” Morris said at the panel discussion. 

Riley has said that his department is scanning school reopening plans from other countries, and considering measures to address learning loss, the need for mental health supports for students, and a host of other issues. 

The CDC guidelines further suggest:

-Seating one child per row, and skipping rows between children on school buses;

-Ending the use of cafeteria dining halls and having children eat in their classrooms instead;

-Modified classroom layouts, including spacing desks at least six feet apart when possible; 

-Turning all desks in the same direction, so students don’t face each other;

-Adding physical barriers, including plastic screens in close quarters such as between bathroom sinks;

-Offering virtual options for staff and children who are at higher risk for severe illness.

Compliance with the CDC’s guidelines would cause significant changes to schedules at many middle and high schools like Amherst’s, where students typically attend several short class periods each day, and mix with numerous others in classrooms, hallways, and cafeterias.

The fall may provide districts with opportunities to make other changes, including adoption of new start times. At Tuesday’s meeting, Amherst Regional School Committee Chairwoman Allison Bleyler McDonald noted briefly that the committee will “explore later start times” as they look at fall plans. 

The Amherst Regional Middle School and High School ordinarily start each morning at 7:45, meaning that some students in rural feeder towns, like Leverett and Shutesbury, need to make 6:35 a.m. school buses.

A later-start movement, which is supported by the CDC, , cites research showing that sleep deprivation among adolescents is a factor in mental health issues, alcohol use, weight gain, and reduced academic performance. The American Academy of Pediatrics calls for no middle or high school day to begin before 8:30 a.m.

The Amherst middle and high schools also operate on rotating 7-day, rather than 5-day schedules, with interruptions like holidays and half-days sometimes leading to uncertainties about what classes will be held, and guides like “What Day Is It At ARMS?” 

The Covid-19-related upheaval could also yield some opportunities for those wishing to alter or eliminate current testing requirements. 

The state received a federal waiver of Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) testing requirements this year. No MCAS tests were administered in any grades, and the state education board approved an alternate qualification for seniors who previously failed a subject test. Seniors were allowed to graduate, based on a passing grade in the subject area and a transcript review.

The MCAS has come under frequent criticism by educators and some public officials for dominating school curricula and sapping classroom time that could be spent more productively. State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, who leads the Senate Coronavirus Response Working Group, has said publicly that she is no fan of the MCAS, and believes the tests will have to be waived for several years because of the pandemic’s profound impact on education in Massachusetts. 

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  1. Perhaps the South Amherst School caN be utilized for smaller classes. The East Street school? Or other buildings at the colleges and university? Also the middle school is underenrolled, so maybe smaller classes can be spread around. Driving kids to school, spreading the school day out, enlisting parents to help or retired teachers, extra supervision on the playgrounds, holding classes outside or in the cafeteria. Face to face class time with teachers and students has to be a priority.

  2. Instead of driving, more kids could (should?) be encouraged to walk or bike to school – a great alternative to physical education or after-school sports. (Even from Bay Rd to ARHS its under 30 minutes by bike, or a nice, hour and a half hike – at least on days with good weather, this would be a great alternative, with many life-long benefits.)

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