Hybrid learning model for Frontier Regional, Union 38 reopening

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2020 3:54:53 PM
Modified: 8/7/2020 3:54:41 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD – Despite teacher concerns, school committee members for both districts have voted in favor of a hybrid learning model for the students’ fall return to school.

Frontier Regional School Committee voted 6 to 5 on Thursday evening in favor of a hybrid learning model for the fall reopening. Using a weighted voting system, which factors in the population of a voting members’ town, the final vote came to 6.04 in favor of hybrid, 4.94 in favor of remote. 

Union 38, which held its meeting two days prior to the Frontier Regional meeting, required votes from each of the elementary school committees. All four committees — Sunderland, Conway, Deerfield and Whately — voted Tuesday in favor of the hybrid model. Of the 18 school committee members present at the joint meeting, 14 voted in favor of the hybrid model, 4 voted against it. 

In the hybrid learning model, students are grouped into A and B cohorts that alternate between in-person and remote education. 

Both decisions followed three hours of contentious conversations between school committee members, teachers and parents in the community. 

“If something happens, we can easily pivot to remote learning,” said Ken Cuddeback, chair of the Deerfield School Committee. “We have to start somewhere. We have to learn how we’re going to be able to function.”

The vote in support of hybrid came despite pushback from teachers in the district speaking largely in favor of pursuing a remote learning model. 

Kate Blair, who identified herself as a teacher, parent and community member, addressed concerns she has with in-person learning based on her experience running an English as a Second Language (ESL) course this summer. Blair said over the course of the three in-person sessions she conducted, she witnessed — and corrected — behaviors such as masks below noses and students touching their face. 

“I was hoping for a learning curve, and I didn't see one,” she said. “The behaviors continued … I would estimate, over an hour period I taught 15 minutes of instructional time and 45 of correcting behaviors.”

Lisa Zadworny, a teacher at Sunderland Elementary School, said before the Union 38 vote on Tuesday that although she wants “more than anything” to return to the classroom, she feels as though she’s been “shamed” into teaching students in person.

“I want the community to hear it’s not a teacher's responsibility to make up for every social service that has been pulled from our communities,” she said. 

Frontier Regional School Committee member Missy Novak, who works in health care, spoke at length Thursday evening about the potential risk of bringing students and faculty back into the building.

“This decision to bring kids back into the school in this volume puts our community to risk,” she said. “It signals to the community it’s OK to gather in large groups.”

Others agreed that the exposure risk to teachers and students, and therefore the greater community, wasn’t one they were willing to take. 

Novak advocated instead, for either a remote start to the school year or a much slower start to the proposed hybrid program.

The remote learning program, some argued, would also allow for the schools to prioritize in-person instruction for special education students. 

 “I think there’s a lot of misconception about the (remote program),” said Sunderland School Committee member Jessica Corwin, who voted against the hybrid plan on Tuesday. “If we did vote for the remote program, we would be prioritizing special populations to still have in-person instruction …  while being safer because the general student population is not in the building.” 

Later in the meeting, Corwin noted that 100 percent of the teachers who wrote to the school committee said remote was their preference.

“I don’t see how we can get our teachers on board if we are ignoring 100 percent of what they’re telling us,” she said. 

Support for hybrid model

Arguing in favor of the hybrid model, however, parents and many school committee members addressed concerns for the social and emotional development of children, as well as lack of internet access or parent support that would be required for a fully remote program.

Meghan Ashman asked committee members to consider the mental health of students in the district, particularly those who are neglected at home and or who view school as their “safe place” during the week.

“I do think that needs to be taken into consideration,” Ashman said. “Yes, a lot of people in our district have a wonderful home life that their parents are able to take off work to sit with them at a computer and help them with work and help them with remote learning, but there’s also lots of kids that are struggling at home all day by themselves.”

Shelley Yagodzinski, another parent in favor of the hybrid model, said although remote learning has its place, “teachers cannot be replaced.”

“(Teachers) are priceless to our children … I am not a teacher,’ she said. “I believe I didn’t even do half as a good of a job as you do with my kids.”

A significant amount of emphasis from those in support of the hybrid model was also placed on the “low case load” in Franklin County.

“If we don’t attempt to open now, when will we?,” said Frontier Regional School Committee member Damien Fosnot. “We have to start somewhere.” 

Deerfield School Committee member David Sharp said that compared to the rest of the state, “we’re lucky.”

We are in Franklin County, we are doing much better than the rest of our state,” he said. “If we need to close down, we will. But while the conditions allow it, I think we should be doing all we can to teach our kids in person.”

Others felt the hybrid allowed the district to have the advantages of in-person learning while also preparing it for a situation in which the district is forced to return to remote because of a state or county-wide spike in cases of COVID-19.

“I don’t look at the hybrid and the virtual as mutually exclusive,” said Frontier Regional School Committee member Keith McFarland on Thursday. “I think the hybrid is… setting the stage for successful virtual learning.”

Conway School Committee member Ashley Dion said that although she isn’t sure yet if she plans to send her own student to school for in-person instruction, she supports the hybrid model as the program for the fall.

“I just don't want kids who need services not to get them and to fall through the cracks,” she said. 

Superintendent Darius Modestow emphasized to both committees that regardless of the plan voted on, there was still work to be done. 

Before adjourning a roughly three-hour meeting Thursday night, Frontier Regional School Committee member Bill Smith – who has served on the committee for 44 years – told his colleagues that the next step is going to require everyone working together. 

“We’ve been through issues like this over the years … ,” he said. “Even though it was a 6 to 5 vote and it was close, when we close down this meeting tonight, the 11 of us have to be all together in this operation, or this is not going to work.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 263. Twitter: @MaryEByrne


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