After weeks of delays, rollbacks and revisions, all four Martha’s Vineyard school committees voted to approve a cautious reopening plan on Thursday that would start with remote learning and gradually phase elementary-level kids back into classrooms with a hybrid learning model by Oct. 27.
But in a last-minute twist, the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee approved a different plan that would have most students participate in remote learning until at least Nov. 10 — the last day of the first quarter. Students designated “high need” will have the ability to receive in-person instruction during that period, but other students would learn remotely, according to a presentation from principal Sara Dingledy on Thursday.
The votes capped a civil but emotional meeting of the all-Island school committee that included more than 400 Zoom participants, many of them parents, teachers and other school faculty.
“It’s been daunting,” said committee chairman Robert Lionette on Thursday, describing the months-long process to develop school reopening plans.
In a presentation Thursday, Ms. Dingledy said the high school’s new model — which she is calling “virtual instruction and in-person support” — came after rethinking the proposed hybrid model that would have had rotating cohorts of students in class two days per week and remote learning for the other three.
A study done by a superintendent-appointed health and wellness task force this summer determined that the high school would not be able to open for full in-person learning because of social distancing protocols, prompting the remote start and transition to the hybrid option.
But Ms. Dingledy scrapped the high school’s version of that proposal Thursday in favor of a different option that wouldn’t force teachers to change course midway through the quarter, and would give students the option of whether they wanted to take advantage of in-person assistance if they wanted — or needed it.
“It’s sort of a hybrid. But it’s an opt-in hybrid, and a high-needs hybrid,” Ms. Dingledy told committee members. “What I like about this, is that it opens the door and takes off the ceiling for the flexibility of staff and students to be creative about how to boost engagement, how to deepen connections, and how to do this work in a meaningful way.”
Ms. Dingledy said the remote learning component would include three hours per week, per teacher, of “synchronous” or live virtual learning. Most students would have a regular day of 60-minute blocks for remote learning, while high-needs students could come to the site for in-person assistance. Ms. Dingledy said the high school had already invested in tents, and would fashion them as learning centers with faculty present for students throughout the day.
The plan would continue until Nov. 10 and then be reassessed, Ms. Dingledy said, with no official date for in-person instruction.
“The reason I am choosing Nov. 10 is because that allows teachers to plan for one delivery system for assessments, craft out unit plans in a way that has their grade points accurate, without massive interruption in the delivery of instruction that could then hijack the work they are doing in terms of planning,” Ms. Dingledy said. “After that we will use metrics, or focus areas and factors, to determine if we will move into a different model.”
The new plan was met with enthusiasm from members of the school committee, who had previously voiced concerns about the rigidity, safety and complexity of the hybrid model.
“I think the plan you’ve presented is a fabulous plan, because it takes into account people’s vulnerabilities, their medical vulnerabilities. It takes into account academic rigor. I applaud you,” committee member Kate Devane said. “That looks to me like a fabulous plan.”
High school committee members voted unanimously to approve the plan, including Mr. Lionette, who had previously suggested he would not vote for a plan that did not set a date for in-person learning.
“It’s been pretty clear that I’ve been bullish on a return to in-person learning as quickly as possible, when it is safe,” Mr. Lionette said. “However, I appreciate Sara, how you have looked at the parameters and the guidelines placed upon you to devise this. I find it thoughtful and appreciate it.”
After approving the high school plan, the committee moved on to discussing the phased remote and hybrid learning plan for Island elementary schools — which caused slightly more disagreement among members.
In a presentation to the committee, school district physician and parent Dr. Jeffrey Zack said the only way the schools could transition to in-person learning would be through an aggressive testing regimen that included new coronavirus testing equipment in every school. He said it would be possible to do, but not until likely the end of September.
He advocated for a cautious approach until that was possible.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky, but eventually we’ll end up with a problem, and that problem is a febrile disease that goes through a school,” Dr. Zack said. “Because it happens every year.”
Previous votes on the plan by individual school districts had been delayed as committee members voiced concerns with the remote and hybrid models, the conservative approach, and the lack of hard metrics and specific dates for transitioning to classrooms. But with a state deadline looming, all the individual school committees — some reluctantly — approved the plan as previously presented Thursday, especially as it became clear that remote learning was likely the safest option for parents.
Students, according to the plan, will start the year remotely on Sept. 17, then begin transitioning to the hybrid model on Sept. 29 for grades kindergarten through two, Oct. 13 for grades three through five, and Oct. 27 for grades six through eight.
The approval came on the condition that whatever gets submitted to the state is not set in stone and could be adapted down the road.
Guidelines from the state, released late this week, contradicted the plan approved Thursday and recommended the district begin the year with in-person learning. Teachers’ unions have advocated for beginning the year with remote learning.
The votes to approve also included a “friendly amendment” from Tisbury school committee member Michael Watts that any date for transitioning to in-person learning can be changed and gets approved with input from public health officials.
“I am going to reluctantly vote yes,” Oak Bluffs school committee member Lisa Regan said. “But the social-emotional welfare of students is worrisome and not being back in school in person really concerns me.”
All votes on Thursday were unanimous except for the up-Island school committee, which approved the plan in a 3-2 vote. Mr. Lionette and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter, 3rd voted no. Committee member Alex Salop, who called the plan a “blunt instrument,” provided the swing “yes” vote.
“I have great doubts about how this plan pertains to the up-Island district,” Mr. Salop said. “I am taking it on good faith that we can make modifications to the plan as our leadership sees fit.”
School superintendent Matthew D’Andrea assured committee members, and the half-dozen parents who spoke in the meeting, that the plan could — and likely would — change as the school year approached. Committee members hinted that they felt the plan presented by Ms. Dingledy would likely work for the Island elementary schools as well. Forums on remote learning — including the alphabet soup of online education platforms — and the specific high school plan have been scheduled for next week, according to assistant superintendent Richie Smith and Ms. Dingledy.
Meanwhile, with the vote done, Mr. D’Andrea said he could finally send the plan to the state.
“We’re going to submit a plan . . . that most certainly could be revised in a week or two based on how things change,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “It’s been a tough exe
rcise, but I think it actually has, at the core, it is bringing out where we should land.”