Swift River School Committee votes to go hybrid

Staff Writer
Published: 2/7/2021 6:00:18 PM

NEW SALEM — The Swift River School Committee voted five to three, with one abstention, on Thursday to enter a hybrid learning model in two phases in March.

Children in preschool through second grade will resume in-building lessons on March 1 and those in grades three through six will start March 8. Based on classroom population, classes will be divided into groups of 10 or fewer to allow for social distancing. Swift River School, which serves children of Wendell and New Salem, reportedly has 66 students.

Students will attend in-school classes on either Mondays and Tuesdays or Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be remote learning days for all. Students can remain fully in remote learning if their families so choose.

The Swift River School Committee is made up of the five-member Wendell and New Salem school committees, though New Salem is currently short one member.

New Salem’s Carla Halpern, who voted ‘Nay’ but said she would have voted in the affirmative had re-entry been phased in over three weeks instead of two, said it seemed a bit hypocritical to send students back to in-building learning while holding a committee meeting remotely. Jack Radner of the Wendell School Committee, who made the motion to enter a hybrid model, said he understood Halpern’s point, but added that a committee meeting is a “whole different scenario than a day in school” in terms of dynamics, and remote committee meetings have been known to generate more community involvement.

Radner also said many students are anxious to go back to school to see their friends and learn in a more traditional environment.

Johanna Bartlett and April Thompson, both of the Wendell committee, also voted against the motion. The affirmative votes came from Wendell’s Radner, Anna Wetherby and Beth Erviti, and New Salem’s Barbara Doyle and Elizabeth Devlin.

Earlier in the meeting, held via Google Hangouts, Swift River School parent Corey Eckert said he works at Deerfield Elementary School, where the hybrid model is “going amazingly well.” He acknowledged the schools’ enrollment differences — Deerfield Elementary has 311 students, he said — but social interaction is hugely important for youngsters.

“For some kids, remote just doesn’t work, at all. For various reasons,” he said. “(Hybrid) is so possible. ... It is hard, but it is worth it and it’s one of those things where, like, kids need this. And that’s what it’s all about. Kids need this and they love it.”

He said that, as a parent, he is frustrated that so much in-building learning has been lost this academic year. He said he was making “almost like a plea” to School Committee members to vote to return to some type of normalcy, “in any capacity. Baby steps.”

Eckert also said Deerfield Elementary has had no issues with mask compliance.

Nicole Burton, also a Swift River School parent, echoed Eckert’s sentiments. She suggested having the sixth-graders go back first.

“It’s their final year at the school,” she said, adding that sixth-graders would be great role models for younger students and they have already had several milestones stripped from them due to the pandemic.

Teacher Jennylou Powers, president of the Swift River Educators Association, read a letter the association had submitted to committee members.

“While we feel strongly that the current remote learning has created a socially responsive and academically challenging environment to support our children’s development, we have always known it is not feasible as a long-term model for learning and teaching,” the letter states. “We also realize that our community is made of individual children and, as has always been true, not all models work for all students.”

The letter lists causes for concern, including the slow progress in vaccinating teachers, staff and community members; the current lack of a feasible COVID-19 testing program for small school districts; the financial strain that the underfunded and complicated testing program proposed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) puts on the Swift River School community; and the risks to staff and children because the “youngest learners still need and benefit from help with donning winter gear, washing hands and close physical contact to meet safety expectations.”

The letter also states some school districts have had to interrupt in-person learning and return to remote learning due to quarantine, and mentions the scarcity of substitute teachers when staff need to stay home due to being diagnosed with COVID-19, displaying symptoms or having been exposed to the virus.

The letter mentions there are also concerns associated with a remote model. These include the isolation felt by students and families, the limits on the ability to support all learning by technology, damage to home-school relationships as families support their learners with a moving target date for in-person learning, and “the minimal impact of some teaching strategies and therapies that are simply not the same through a screen as they are in person.”

“Returning students and staff to in-person learning is a shared goal with many moving parts and the pressure is high to get this step right. Finding the balance for this next step is surely not easy,” the letter states. “This community has worked with determination, respect and diligence on a task with so much out of our control that it is no wonder so many are weary and frustrated. We appreciate all the work each and every member of our community is doing.”

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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