Mohawk Trail addresses internet, financial concerns over reopening

  • Mohawk Trail Regional High School STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2020 5:21:02 PM

BUCKLAND — School committee members expect to vote next week on one of three proposed learning models for the reopening of the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Regional school districts this fall.

The draft reopening plan was presented by administrators Wednesday evening at a Mohawk Trail Regional District School Committee meeting. The plan, as required by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, outlines three potential learning models: in-person, remote, and a hybrid of the two.

“We are working to make the best decision possible given the information we have,” said Superintendent Sheryl Stanton. “We know we have to open safely and educate all of our students.”

The in-person model outlines a plan for social distancing of 6 feet and mask-wearing. Stanton said the school buildings have enough space to “creatively” fit all students and staff, by using the gym and cafeteria as learning spaces.

“This model is not feasible of us … at this time,” Stanton said, explaining that it would require “substantial increase in funding” to cover the costs of re-purposing space and hiring additional teaching staff.

The hybrid model would run on the AA/remote/BB cohort schedule. In other words, Cohort A would be taught in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and Cohort B would be taught in-person Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesday would be remote for all students, during which time the school will go through a deep cleaning. 

Outdoor learning, in this plan, would be prioritized. 

“It allows as much in-person instruction as time as possible,” she said. “It maintains the social distancing within the cohorts of students but also between the cohorts of students.” 

According to the plan, there are two hybrid model scenarios at both the elementary level and the middle school/high school levels. The scenario chosen, however, would depend on how many students elect to go completely remote. 

“If enough families decide remote … the numbers of students of in-person could allow for all in-person,” she said. 

And finally, the remote model plans for a totally remote learning experience.

School Committee member Greg Lily asked administrators Wednesday if they, personally, would feel safe with an in-person return to school via the proposed hybrid models. 

“Yes, because we are using the best information we have right now regarding 6 feet of social distancing, masks, hand washing and hygiene,” Stanton said. “Part of this difficult decision is that we do have to trust … that we respect that, that those are ways we can keep each other and our students healthy.”

She said the school will monitor closely case numbers in the county and keeping it in consideration as the school year proceeds. 

Cost a problem

Members discussed the expenses associated with the in-person and hybrid models, both of which would require additional costs to the district in terms of staffing, personal protective equipment, and tents for outdoor classes. 

According to the draft plan, the in-person model would cost the district an estimated $1.7 million, and the hybrid model would cost the district roughly $600,000.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know, and funding is one of them,” Stanton said. 

School Committee member Budge Litchfield urged others at the meeting to contact local legislators to encourage them to support actions that would bring money to rural districts. 

“Let’s get the money here,” he said. “Let’s get the acts passed. That’s the only way we're going to be able to do this. Our towns can’t come up with all that extra money. Our schools don’t have that kind of deep pockets.”

Other issues

Concerns over remote learning and lack of internet access to some families in the district were also addressed. 

“Our biggest concern … are families that have no access to any of that (satellite/broadband),” Stanton said. “It may be that we’re looking at partnering with two buildings to open up spots for families and students that literally cannot access the internet any other way.”

She added that the district is considering using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money or technology infrastructure grants to help families lift caps on data use.

Some committee members addressed the concerns of teachers — ensuring they, too, felt safe returning to a model that puts them back into the building with students. 

“If they are parents in the district, what plans are we making for them?” asked Kara Kitchen, who noted she’s not only a committee member, but also a parent and teacher. 

Many of the parameters of in-person learning could be as traumatic to students as going fully remote, she said. 

Echoing the sentiments of many others at the meeting, School Committee member Barbara Rode said the responsibility of voting on a plan for the fall was “overwhelming.”

“We can’t guarantee anything … when we step into a grocery store or go anywhere, we’re navigating through these percentages of risk,” she said. “We’re trying to balance that with how to live our lives and go anywhere.”

Although public comment was not entertained at the meeting, a remote Town Hall was scheduled to take place Thursday evening for public feedback and commentary.  

The committee plans to vote at its meeting next Wednesday, but Martha Thurber, chair of the Mohawk Trail District School Committee, said those plans could change if deemed necessary.

“Whether or not we’re voting will depend on variables that are unknown at the moment,” Thurber said. “We will take the time we need to do what is right.”

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