SPECIAL COVERAGE ON THE CORONAVIRUS
Under Pressure to Reopen this Fall, School Leaders Discuss Unprecedented Changes
By Greg Lane, Hingham Current Staff Posted July 1, 2020
The Hingham High School on Union Street. [Hingham Current News File Photo / Kristen Arute]
Hingham School superintendent, principals and a school working group are staring at an impossible equation.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has promised to put kids back in classrooms in a matter of weeks, but it is local school officials that are stuck navigating the messy details of how to keep students and teachers safe and win over skeptical parents, while at the same time dealing with a brand new set of COVID-related costs that were not accounted for in the recently-adopted Fiscal Year 2021 (“FY21”) budget.
At a virtual coffee hosted by the Hingham School Outreach Subcommittee, Hingham Superintendent Dr. Paul Austin explained that school administration is still in the process of reviewing the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) coronavirus guidelines for how Hingham Schools could reopen this fall. The administration and a working group appointed by the school are preparing for three potential scenarios: a full-scale return to school, remote learning or a combination of the two. They are investigating whether the schools will have to increase the number of buses, set up smaller classrooms or shut down common areas such as cafeterias.
“Once we’ve measured every classroom and we can identify all of our spaces,” Austin said to almost one hundred participants, “our initial plan is to get as many kids as possible in school, as long as we can do it safely,”
Since DESE released its initial coronavirus guidelines, pressure has been building to reopen Hingham’s schools. But, the next iteration of Hingham education will look far different from the classrooms that students and teachers abruptly departed from in March.
The new landscape could include buses running half empty, kids and teachers in masks, and lunch in classrooms instead of cafeterias. And in Hingham, like the rest of Massachusetts, officials are considering bringing half of the students to school on certain days while the rest learn from home. They then would switch.
However, some schools in Hingham simply might not be equipped to keep children safe. Social distancing is part of any plan for reducing spread of infection, but some of the older schools in town have issues with the buildings which complicates things. Because of Foster Elementary School’s heating system, Foster students have had to regularly be relocated during the school day and were even evacuated to the high school auditorium a couple of years ago when the temperatures in the building dropped to unsafe lows.
Amid the planning, there’s plenty of skepticism. Some parents dismiss the social distancing ideas under consideration, saying it would be near impossible to prevent virus transmission in a school. For those parents, the school is re-designing the remote learning plan that was rolled out by the school system when COVID-19 hit.
Dr. Austin cautioned the participants not to speculate about the possibilities and urged them to let the volunteer committee do its job. “We’re going to let the subcommittee do their job and come back with alternatives,” said Austin. “We are waiting for a little more guidance.”
Additional guidance will be released by the state in July. A decision on fall sports is expected to be released in the July guidelines.