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Newton School Committee OK’s hybrid plan for city high schools

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

Newton’s School Committee approved a plan Wednesday to reopen the North and South high schools to in-person student instruction starting in late January, which will bring them in line with the city’s other schools that already offer classes inside buildings.

The high schools’ hybrid program will also live-stream lessons for remote students and allow both in-person and distance learners to participate in the same classes. Officials had pledged to prepare a roadmap for bringing high schoolers back into their buildings, and many families had called on the district to resume in-person teaching.

“We’re giving families the opportunity for some in-person experience, even though it’s not as much as I think we all would like to have,” said Kathleen Shields, a School Committee member from Ward 7, who supported the plan. “I’m glad that we’re here now.”

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Officials warned that with a return to the buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic, classes would be smaller, students and teachers would be masked and spread out, and some students would be participating from home using live video.

Officials intend to divide in-person students into cohorts to reduce the number of people in the buildings for social distancing in classrooms, during lunch, and in common areas.

In some cases, teachers will be conducting classes remotely, and in-person students may work from a common area like a school library.

Logistics of the plan also remain to be worked out, including how often students can attend class inside the high school buildings. That issue will be determined by how many families opt for in-person classes and available staffing levels inside the schools.

With four cohorts, students would attend school in person four days each month. A three-cohort plan would mean students would be inside buildings six days a month. Officials hope to have as few cohorts as possible.

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“The devil is going to be in the details,” said Ruth Goldman, the School Committee’s chairwoman, who supported the plan. “There is a ton of planning that has to be done at the department and teacher level... and that happens at the bargaining table as well.”

The Newton Teachers Association, which represents about 2,000 educators and school staff, including high school teachers, has repeatedly raised concerns about safety of in-person classes and the academic value of the hybrid program planned for high schoolers.

Teachers and district officials have said it will be difficult to offer education that will serve both in-person and remote learners simultaneously. And they have warned that logistics involved will make for a slower-paced curriculum, and impact some extracurricular programs.

The hybrid program was developed by the High School Working Group, with members consisting of representatives from the School Committee, school administration, staff, parents, teachers, and students. The group began work in October, and presented its recommendations last month.

On Wednesday, School Committee members voted 8 to 1 in favor of the hybrid program. The sole vote against the program was Matthew Miller, a School Committee member from Ward 8.

Before the vote, Miller voiced concerns over the plan and questioned the need for voting Wednesday.

“Why can’t we just let it unfold, work with the teachers a little bit more, see if they have other ideas that we can adopt, [and] get more buy-in?” Miller said. “Then I’d feel more comfortable voting on it.”

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Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, who serves on the School Committee member and voted in favor of the hybrid program, told colleagues officials needed to move forward.

“To a person, and to every single community in Massachusetts, this is just hard,” Fuller said of the pandemic’s impact. “I urge us to keep the goal in mind, which is to get our students, our high school students back into the [buildings] and support our educators in every way possible.”

Newton’s elementary schools started the year with in-person classes, followed by Newton’s middle schools last month.

Before the vote, Martha Golub, parent of a Newton South High School student, urged committee members to approve a hybrid plan for high schoolers, and improve the remote learning program.

Teens attending school from home are suffering the consequences, and some seek assistance for feelings associated with depression, isolation, and loneliness, she said.

“Our kids are truly suffering. So my plea this evening is to act quickly: Make a plan that gets our high schoolers back in school”, she said.

Marcia Okun, a Newton South High School teacher, told committee members she would love to see all of her students in person, but she is concerned about safety for them and teachers if they return to the buildings.

Many teachers are also facing decisions about whether to return to buildings, or seek a leave of absence, out of concern for loved ones vulnerable to COVID-19, she said.

“You need to know that teachers are being forced to make difficult and possibly life-and-death choices,” she said.

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