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Newton parents, city councilors question slow pace of reopening high schools

Most students at Newton North and Newton South high schools remain in remote-only classes.
Most students at Newton North and Newton South high schools remain in remote-only classes.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

A growing chorus of parents and city councilors in Newton is questioning the pace of efforts to bring students back into the city’s high schools, after other nearby districts were able to reopen their buildings this fall.

Newton elementary students have returned to hybrid classes and middle schoolers are poised to start in-person learning in November, but most students at Newton North and Newton South high schools remain in remote-only classes.

A School Committee working group is expected to offer hybrid learning recommendations for the high schools in November, with the goal of implementing a plan in January, said Ruth Goldman, the School Committee’s chairwoman.

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But among some parents, there is a mix of frustration and confusion about why, exactly, there is no plan yet for students to return to their high schools. The School Committee called for a plan in August, but a working group to develop one didn’t start up until mid-October.

“There is a lack of imagination for creative solutions ... to actually get the kids back in school,” said Liz Padula, a former copresident of the Brown Middle School PTO who has two daughters at Newton South. “What took them a month and a half to put a committee together? So [it’s] just the lack of a sense of urgency to get this done. Time is ticking.”

David Goldstone, who is among about a dozen parents who signed an open letter to city leaders calling for in-person learning, pointed to a summer survey of Newton parents, in which about 85 percent of respondents supported a hybrid program.

In the letter, the group pointed to a group of nearby districts that have been able to reopen their high schools during the pandemic, or announce plans to do so: Acton-Boxborough, Brookline, Concord-Carlisle, Lexington, Natick, Needham, Sharon, Wayland, Wellesley, and Weston.

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“I just know I’ve got two high schoolers who don’t leave their room all day, who never see classmates or teachers in person,” Goldstone said in an interview. “And that’s a crummy way to spend your year.”

During the summer, the School Committee had approved a hybrid plan for the high schools, but reversed course and later enacted the current remote model. Officials, including Superintendent David Fleishman, have said the move to all-remote was due to staffing and educational issues.

The School Committee’s High School Working Group — consisting of parents, teachers, students, and administrators — began work earlier this month and is expected to present its recommendations during the School Committee meeting on Nov. 16, Goldman said.

That work began in the fall so Newton officials could learn from other districts that reopened their high schools earlier, she said. A School Committee vote on a recommendation is expected in December.

“We are doing what we think is best for students, and we are working hard to provide other options, and we think a hybrid model is an important option for students,” Goldman said. “But it will also compromise the full distance learning experience. Nothing is perfect.”

A proposed agreement would require both the school district and the Newton Teachers Association to sign off on plans for hybrid instruction at the high schools. The agreement is expected to be voted on Monday during separate meetings of the union and the School Committee.

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In their open letter, posted on the community website Village14.com, Goldstone and the other parents wrote that Newton should not commit to an agreement “that appears to lock our children out of their schools.”

Michael Zilles, the union president, said he has declined to participate in the working group process — which does include several union members — because of his responsibility to represent members during negotiations. He said the district should have bargained with the union to develop a hybrid plan, and pointed to the union’s proposal for such a plan in August.

“I understand why you feel frustrated, and why you feel like you have been cut out of the conversation, that your interests have just not made it into the district’s plan,” Zilles said of parents. “And I would say, I share the same feeling. We feel at the union like we’ve been cut out of the process and we haven’t been listened to.”

Several city councilors also have questioned how school officials have handled the reopening process, and have criticized them for not finding a way to return high schoolers to their classrooms.

On Tuesday, half of the 24-member City Council reiterated those calls in a memo to the School Committee and Mayor Ruthanne Fuller.

“We are quite concerned with what appears to be a lack of urgency and prioritization on reopening our schools for in-person learning to the fullest extent possible,” the councilors' memo said.

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Goldman learned of the memo on Monday, and in an e-mail that night to councilors, had advised them to reconsider sending it. Their message was filled with misinformation, did not have a “collaborative spirit,” and was “outside your purview” as city councilors, Goldman’s e-mail said.

School officials wanted to perfect distance learning for the middle and high schools before moving to in-person because they suspected that schools would move back to distance learning due to the pandemic, Goldman said.

Emily Norton, a Ward 2 city councilor who was among the letter’s signers and who has a child attending Newton North, said in an interview that councilors will continue to assert themselves on the issue.

“We are not going to stand by and be silent, as if in agreement with what is happening,” Norton said.

Fleishman, in a statement to the Globe, said the hybrid model requires more staffing and more space, and the district has particular challenges in those areas in the high schools. Officials do not want to compromise the robust educational program Newton’s schools are known for, whether students learn remotely or in a hybrid program, he said.

“I believe in-person learning is the right thing to do for our kids. I’m worried about the social and emotional health of our students as we know some are feeling disconnected and isolated,” Fleishman said. “At the same time, we must contend with a diverse set of challenges when we consider moving to a hybrid learning model.”

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In a separate statement, Fuller said she has focused a lot of her time on making sure there are no obstacles under her control that would prevent hybrid education opportunities. The mayor said she is committed to giving the schools the resources they need.

She said she shares the sense of urgency she hears from parents about having an in-person hybrid model for all grade levels, and the district must move forward with an option for high school students as soon as possible.

“I continue to be concerned that there are an insufficient number of teachers, specialists, aides and other staff to provide the hybrid opportunity," Fuller said. "I will press NPS on this issue.”

Julie Bruno Vasil, whose daughter is a senior at Newton South, said in an interview that the city’s lack of progress in bringing high schoolers back into classrooms is “bewildering.”

As high schools open in other communities, she wonders why Newton hasn’t been able to do so as well.

“They already missed half their junior year, they need to be in class,” Bruno Vasil said of current seniors. “Time has been lost here.”

Shara Ertel, whose daughter is a junior at Newton South, said the city is now on the right path with the High School Working Group process.

“We have a blank slate, and there is promise in that we have the opportunity to put together something that is better” than what other districts have implemented, Ertel said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.