Throughout the spring, communities across Massachusetts came together to slow the spread of COVID-19 by quarantining. When this all began in March we did not know that our commitment to managing and ending the pandemic would extend through the summer and into the fall. But this is the place we find ourselves.
COVID-19 has spread throughout the summer, touching every part of our country and affecting all aspects of our daily lives. Since my first letter in March, I have called upon the Clipper community to focus on our common good and take care of each other. This letter is no different, but comes at a time when our community is tired and searching for a clear pathway to the end.
In many of my presentations, I have used the notion of a VUCA environment. This is a term coined by military groups and refers to a situation that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Uncertainty and ambiguity are not words we typically associate with decision making; I think most of us would prefer a simple, clear problem over a volatile one.
As we began our work this summer, we were aware of the complexity of our situation. NPS has over 2,300 students and 450 employees. We are responsible for meeting the requirements of extensive regulations and providing many forms of instruction. And, although we have many assets, our resources are not unlimited.
In a VUCA environment, an organization must call on experienced leaders to simplify the complexity, sort through the ambiguity, and define the uncertainties. In Newburyport, we are thankful to have the advice and expertise of many:
Public health and operations experts (from Chief Operating Officers, to epidemiologists, to PhD nurses, to pediatricians, to HVAC specialists) have guided us through complex public health recommendations and educated us on ambiguous science.
Educators (from administrators, to counselors, to teachers, to instructional assistants) have helped us clarify DESE guidance and create options for learning that are based on best practices that are practical operationally. Since June 18th, over 250 Newburyport educators have worked over 10,000 hours developing remote and hybrid learning units.
Students and parents have shared their stories from the spring and their hopes for the fall as we worked to build vision from volatility.
Educating During a Pandemic
The pandemic has forced us to look differently at education. First and foremost, we are charged with designing an educational plan that fully implements all public health guidance. This includes implementing the following mitigation strategies in all our plans:
All staff and students will wear masks and other appropriate PPE
Physical distancing of 6 feet for instructional environments
Cohorting and contact tracing
Daily home COVID-19 symptom screening
Clear cleaning protocols
Implementing these mitigation strategies impacts how our schools operate and affects our instructional plans.
Operations. Operationally, each school will look different and operate using new protocols. Desks are carefully spaced, rooms are redesigned to accommodate rigorous cleaning, lunch procedures reflect health and safety guidance. Each school principal has worked closely with our School Nurse Leader Cathy Riccio, the Health and Safety Task Force, and our District Buildings and Operations Manager Steve Bergholm to develop a comprehensive, detailed operational plan. Principals will begin the process of teaching staff, parents and students these new procedures in the weeks to come.
Curriculum and Instruction. In a typical year our vision for curriculum and instruction would guide our operational decisions. COVID-19 changed that approach. DESE required three plans: in-person, hybrid and remote. To develop these plans, we first designed operations that allowed us to fully implement the mitigation strategies and meet the extensive DESE regulations. Then we looked at what type of schedules and instructional models would best match the operational requirements.
Every school level and building has unique challenges. For example, a high school schedule where students are in different classrooms every hour and move to various rooms for every course does not easily support cohorting or contact tracing. Adding to the complexity, Newburyport High School has narrow hallways and variable room sizes that do not easily support six-foot distancing for a population of 800 students.
On Monday night the School Committee voted to approve the PK-8 Hybrid Plans. The specifics of each school’s reopening plans can be found on the District Website and have been communicated by the building principals (Bresnahan page 26, Molin page 32, and Nock page 35). Below is a short summary:
All PK students will attend school either the half day AM session or the half day PM session four days a week, Monday through Thursday. (No School Friday)
All K students will attend school either the half day AM session or the half day PM session four days a week, Monday, Tuesday / Thursday, Friday. (No School Wed.)
To provide space for physical distancing, all grade 1-8 students will be divided into two cohorts. Each cohort will attend school in-person for two days and remotely for three days. All students will be remote on Wednesdays to allow for cleaning.
Cohort assignments will be available on Friday, August 21st. The Bresnahan, Molin and Nock administrative teams have worked together to ensure that siblings are in the same cohort. With 1,400 students across these three schools, this has been an enormously complex task.
Instruction at every grade level will include synchronous, asynchronous and independent work.
After long deliberations, the School Committee voted to revise the proposed learning model for the high school towards a more traditional hybrid model. More details on the reopening plan can be found on the District Website (High School page 40), but below are a few key points:
The high school schedule allows for students to attend school in-person two days every other week. This will be coordinated by student grade level and last name. (see sample 2-week calendar rotation on page 44 of the plan)
Students in school and at home will follow the same bell schedule and will receive instruction from the classroom teacher.
Within each school’s plan you will also find specific details pertaining to students with disabilities and DESE prioritized populations. For additional information regarding special education and prioritized populations, please reference pages 20-26.
Because we are educating in the midst of a pandemic, every plan has compromises. What was not compromised is our commitment to fully implementing mitigation procedures and protecting the health and safety of our students and staff.
Although this plan reflects hours of work by our entire community, it is really just the place where we start. The COVID-19 environment is fluid and will require our planning to be agile. Our decisions throughout the year will be:
Tied to local, state and national health data
Focused on prioritizing in-person learning & following the health guidelines (when safe to do so)
Through many years as an educator, I have been a part of many deeply personal stories. Education is ultimately about relationships. We stand with young people when hardships hit, and we celebrate with them when they achieve success. Sometimes the stories are not pretty because real growth doesn't often come without struggle and setbacks.
This pandemic is certainly a hardship, and for many of us a real struggle. But I am confident that our plans will support Newburyport students in continuing their education and creating their own stories.