Newton Community Debates School Reopening

by Julian Phillips, Freelance Editor
graphic by Emily Zhang

A Newton School Committee vote on August 14 in favor of a split-hybrid learning model — where students chose to attend class in-person two mornings each week or participate in a Distance Learning Academy (DLA) — was modified to be a remote model in a unanimous vote on August 26.

Newton Public Schools (NPS) administrators switched to recommend a model in which the majority of high schoolers are fully remote for the foreseeable future, with exceptions for special needs students. They cited staff survey results, showing insufficient staffing at the high-school level as the primary reason for the change. A motion by the School Committee calls for the possibility of a split-hybrid model to be reviewed in November.

Some community members, such as South parent Erica Fine, expressed worry about the potential spread of  COVID-19 under the split-hybrid model.

“My issue was with staying indoors in rooms that I don’t know are sufficiently ventilated and being in crowded hallways together,” she said.

While plans for the proposed split-hybrid model featured a draft schedule and preliminary safety protocols in the NPS Return to Learn Blueprint, Fine said she was concerned by the lack of details about the DLA program, which would have been fully remote and separate.

“I don’t really know [anything] about the remote experience that we opted for,” she said on August 23. “I feel like I chose a path that is very up in the air, and I really don’t like that.”

Among the opponents of the split-hybrid plan was the Newton Teachers Association (NTA), which created a revised plan calling for an all-remote start to school with a phased-in reopening that prioritizes students with special needs, ELL students and younger learners.

Senior Melissa Shang, a disability activist, said she strongly opposed the NPS split-hybrid model. Shang and senior Carrie Ryter created a petition advocating for the NTA model.

“The original hybrid plan was definitely very ableist and discriminatory,” she said. “We believed that for parents to choose between a half-baked, unclear hybrid model or the elusive Distance Learning Academy was unfair.”

English teacher Jeremiah Hill said that educators had virtually no chance to contribute to either NPS plan.

“You can’t get a lot of direct input from every single person, but in general the faculty and staff did not have input into the process,” he said.

In contrast, Superintendent David Fleishman said the central administration has been in constant contact with teachers.

“We meet with the Teachers Association every week, and we will continue to listen, exchange ideas and negotiate,” he said. “We’re trying to address their concerns both safety-wise and educationally to the greatest extent possible.”

Shang’s petition closed with over 1,120 total supporters; meanwhile, a counter-petition started by anonymous NPS students in favor of in-person reopening has received over 1,000 signatures.

Sophomore Fahran Bajaj said he would prefer some in-person learning. 

“My parents and I thought it would be better to go to school. I learn better that way, and I think a lot of other people learn better that way,” he said.

Community members have also protested in favor of their preferred learning model. 

On August 26, families gathered at Newton South and then City Hall to protest the switch to remote learning, believing NPS had given up on its students. A caravan protest in support of more stringent safety protocols circled City Hall on Sept. 10 and was met with a counter protest.

History teacher Eugene Stein said that he’s looking forward to returning to South when it’s safe.

“I want to be in the classroom, and I don’t like teaching remotely,” he said. “That being said, people need to be very conscious of the dangers of this virus and ensure that safety is first.”