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Newton proposes hybrid learning for high schools featuring live-streamed classes

Newton North High School
Newton North High SchoolSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Newton school officials are proposing a hybrid program at the city’s high schools that would bring students back into buildings in January and offer live streaming of classes to those learning from home.

Many Newton families have called for a return to in-person learning for high schoolers, and the proposal would allow students to participate in the same classes regardless of whether they are being taught in the buildings or remotely.

It would also bring Newton North and Newton South high schools in line with the city’s other public schools, which have reopened for hybrid learning.

But the proposal, presented this week by the School Committee’s High School Working Group, won’t mean a return to how the high schools looked a year ago, Superintendent David Fleishman said in an interview.

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People would wear masks, practice social distancing, and follow other measures to defend against the virus. Some students will be working remotely. And the teachers won’t be able to cover as much material, with one group of students in school buildings and another working from home, he said.

There are educational advantages to in-person interaction among students and teachers, Fleishman said.

“We think overall, for those students who choose to come in, that connection to their peers and to their teachers will make a difference,” Fleishman said. “We’re confident we could do it, and given the social-emotional needs of our students, we think it’s really important to give students in-person time.”

The plan has its critics. Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association representing more than 2,000 teachers and other school workers, said the steps needed to bring students back into classrooms would limit the quality of education. The proposal also did not incorporate enough safety measures for staff and students, he said.

“The tradeoffs are very high,” Zilles said in an interview. “You’re sacrificing quality of educational experience for having students be there in person.”

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Ruth Goldman, the School Committee’s chairwoman, has said the committee will discuss the proposal during its Dec. 2 meeting, and anticipates a vote on Dec. 14.

Earlier this month, the School Committee rejected a proposed agreement with the union that would have required both sides to approve hybrid plans at the high schools.

At Monday’s meeting, Kevin Sloan of Newtonville told School Committee members that the working group’s recommendations were a big step in the right direction.

“Middle school and high school students need to be in school. Live, with teachers, with friends,” Sloane said. “Kids need academic rigor, and challenge. Kids need to be with role models and with peers.”

Another resident, Melissa Brown, criticized the structure of the High School Working Group, saying it did not offer equal representation for teachers. The primary concern for in-person learning should be ensuring safety from COVID-19 transmission, she said.

“The School Committee desperately needs an explicit strategy to regain the trust of teachers and of parents like myself whose primary concern is safety,” Brown told the board.

Last summer, about 85 percent of high school families who responded to a Newton survey said they would opt for hybrid in-person learning. The district will conduct a new survey of families to determine how many students wish to participate in the hybrid program, Fleishman said.

On a parallel track, school officials are reviewing which high school staff will be allowed to work remotely because of personal or family health conditions.

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Logistics of the high schools' plan, particularly how often students would be physically in school, will be determined based on how many families opt into the program and the availability of staff to work inside the buildings, Fleishman said.

“High numbers of teachers out, and high numbers of students wanting to come back, means [a] lower number of in-person days for students,” Fleishman said.

On a parallel track, school officials are reviewing which high school staff will be allowed to work remotely due to personal or family health conditions. As of September, 108 employees, including 75 North and South teachers, had been approved for remote accommodation from the district.

Fleishman has notified high school staff that those without permission to work from home will perform their duties in the school buildings at least once a week beginning Nov. 30.

They’ll work five days a week in the schools beginning Jan. 4, and if approved by the School Committee, the hybrid plan would begin Jan. 27.

Logistics of the high schools' plan, particularly how often students would be physically in school, will be determined based on how many families opt into the program and the availability of staff to work inside the buildings, Fleishman said.

“High numbers of teachers out, and high numbers of students wanting to come back, means [a] lower number of in-person days for students,” Fleishman said.

In Newton as of Nov. 11, there were 80 confirmed cases over the previous two weeks, according to the state Department of Public Health. The city had an average daily incident rate of 6.2 per 100,000 people, and is color-coded green on the state’s COVID-19 map.

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Some parents who supported reopening have pointed to efforts by other communities to resume in-person learning through hybrid programs -- essentially a mix between in-classroom and remote education -- and called on Newton to offer the same for its high schoolers.

But the coronavirus has proven to be a challenge for some schools that have reopened. In Milton, where the high school reopened on Nov. 10 to in-person learning, administrators told families the building would be closed until the end of the month following several reported cases among students. The school had previously closed in October due to coronavirus concerns.

In Wellesley, where the high school switched to remote learning Nov. 12 following COVID-19 cases at the school, Superintendent David Lussier told families Sunday that there was “strong evidence” of in-school transmission.

Zilles said the city needs to implement surveillance testing to help protect the schools.

“My members would feel a heck of a lot better about this if the district were taking the steps necessary to give them greater assurance of their safety,” Zilles said.

Fleishman said the school system is absolutely open and willing to embrace different forms of testing.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, in a statement, said: “We are open to surveillance testing and would like to work with the schools to find a viable and sustainable solution as we continue to evaluate all our options.”

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During Monday’s presentation, Tamika Olszewski, who represents Ward 4 on the School Committee, said the high schools' families, students, and teachers will probably not be surprised by the proposal.

“I think it’s important and valuable that we’ve done this type of vetting and analysis and this process to get here, confirming that is, in fact, the best and the strongest recommendation, and that the tradeoffs make sense.” Olszewski said.



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