Returning to Learning?

News Uncategorized
by Ella Hou, News Contributor, Alex Merkowitz, News Editor, Lyanna Tran, News Contributor & Eva Zacharakis, News Editor 
photo by Sophie Lewis

The Lion’s Roar reviewed statements made by Superintendent David Fleishman and other administrators at School Committee meetings and examined the extent to which their promises for high school learning have been upheld 

Aug. 25 School Committee Meeting

“We will have many opportunities for in-person community building, connection and extracurriculars.” — Superintendent David Fleishman 

The school is running some masked and socially distanced in-person activities: sports practices and games and rehearsals for theatre, chorus and band. 

School Committee chair Ruth Goldman said that the School Committee is assessing the risk of expanding in-person opportunities to include classes and established a High School Planning Working Group. 

The working group began meeting the week of Oct. 12 and will issue initial proposals for expanded in-person opportunities to the School Committee on Nov. 16. The finalized proposal will be presented to the School Committee on Dec. 2. 

Senior Elianna Kruskal, who stage managed the fall play, said that cast and crew members adhere to strict safety protocols at rehearsal. 

“The solution we’ve found is that we are following the strictest guidelines that make the most conservative — in terms of safety — people comfortable, and that’s the precaution that everyone needs to follow,” Kruskal said. 

Soccer player freshman Haley Kim said that while she has been lucky to have in-person practice, academic clubs should have the same opportunities.

“They can be done safely over Zoom, and that’s an option for them, but I feel like they should be provided with equal opportunity as athletics,” she said.

French teacher Deborah Hahn is one of many teachers who are hoping to organize in-person gatherings for their students.

“Many of us really miss and crave that real connection that you get when you are face-to-face with someone,” she said.

Biology teacher Jordan Kraus implemented a system where students take part in in-person labs as small groups. English teacher Eliza Tyack introduced a senior outdoor cooperative, which runs social and community-based activities.

Sophomore Caroline Cole said it’s important to show empathy for the School Committee and working group members who will make difficult decisions in the weeks ahead.

“We have to go easy on people who have a lot of opinions coming at them,” she said. “At the same time, I hope that things change and grow and get better.” 

Aug. 25 School Committee Meeting

“Let me kick off by reiterating our commitment as a district to implementing IEPs fully.” — Assistant Superintendent Elizabeth Fitzmaurice 

South is providing in-person learning to about 100 students who are unable to engage in remote classes. These students include those who have disabilities, are homeless, are in foster or congregate care or identify as English Language Learners. 

Special education teacher Margaret Maher said that students in the building appear more focused and attentive this year. 

“People can spread out, and the classrooms are calmer,” she said. “It’s a more relaxed feel in school.” 

Many students who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are learning remotely. North special education department chair Lisa Langone said that in the spring, the disorganized nature of IEP support was difficult to navigate for students. To streamline educational services, the high school and middle school levels are using exclusively Zoom for students this fall.

“We can target our direct teaching of executive function skills through a single platform that helps students be more successful,” she said.

The very nature of Zoom classes, how-ever, is not always conducive to supporting student needs. Senior Adam Rotem, who has ADHD, said that he has trouble focusing on his classes and wishes he could learn in the school building.

“There’s no support right now,” he said. “You can’t make personal relationships with teachers because we’re all on the computer.” 

Sept. 14 School Committee Meeting

“I was hoping our [district’s] 2,800 chromebooks would have arrived by now, just to make things a little bit easier and not have to scrounge from every nook and cranny.” — Director of Information Technology Steven Rattendi 

Plans to distribute chromebooks to ninth-grade students were disrupted by a shift in delivery dates. Before the start of the school year, students were given a survey to indicate whether or not they urgently need a device. Freshmen who urgently needed devices have received them, thanks to the recollection of chromebooks from upperclassmen volunteers. The majority of freshmen, however, will have to wait until January 2021. 

Distribution of chromebooks with touch screens has been delayed due to high demand as the district assesses the situation. Devices with touch-screen capabilities are crucial for high-school math classes, Superintendent of Secondary Education Toby Romer said. 

While Goldman said the January date is firm, some students, like freshman Lana Mello, said they wouldn’t be surprised if it was pushed back further.

Mello said she is disappointed by the delay because computers will be less useful if a hybrid model is implemented.

“We don’t need chromebooks in January next year, we need chromebooks when school is [online],” she said.

Regardless of timing, Romer said that the plan to give each student a chromebook has not changed.

“We were rolling out our one-to-one chromebook initiative before COVID-19 distance learning or the pandemic,” he said. “Having technology and being able to access it when needed is a key part of the high school learning experience. We don’t envision that changing.” 

Sept. 21 School Committee Meeting

“Given that ventilation is such a critical part of our capacity, we are going to deploy a multi-pronged strategy to inspect, modify and improve ventilation systems in all school buildings. The strategy will utilize third-party contractors to inspect, repair and test systems so that measured results meet or exceed design capacity.” — Assistant Superintendent Liam Hurley 

During the public comment session of the Sept. 2 School Committee meeting, elementary school teacher Ariana Foster called for an independent Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) assessment of all school buildings. 

“I was shocked to see that the School Committee used my 5th grade classroom at Lincoln-Elliot as a visual representation of the health and safety of NPS [Newton Public Schools] buildings,” she said, citing a two-year long process where Lincoln-Elliot faculty and families advocated for an investigation of mysterious black dust being emitted from classroom vents. (NPS administrators refused to test the school’s ventilation system, but an outside assessment revealed the dust contained particles of rubber, paint, fiberglass and pipe insulation.) 

At that very same School Committee meeting, Hurley gave a facility update presentation that assured the Newton community that “all ventilation systems in all buildings are working properly.” 

However, Newton families were later informed that a Sept. 18 spot-check of ventilation systems at four of NPS’s oldest school buildings — Ward, Franklin, the Newton Early Childhood Program center and Foster’s Lincoln-Elliot — revealed that some unit ventilators were operating below their air flow capacity. As a result, Hurley announced a plan to inspect, modify and improve ventilation systems in all school buildings. The district employed a third-party contractor, Crowley Engineering, that began work on Sept. 28.

As of Nov. 11, the district’s ventilation service, maintenance and adjustment phase is substantially complete; the engineering analysis and walk-through phase is 78% complete; and the air flow testing and balancing phase is 26% complete. NPS hoped to complete the work by mid-November.

Director of Facilities David Stickney said that HVAC testing results are public on the NPS website to ensure transparency.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about a lack of trust in what I do, and it’s never a good thing to hear,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the most important thing is that we’re providing a safe and healthy environment. … We’re not going to put anyone in a space that isn’t safe.”