by Julian Philips, Freelance Editor & Sarah Wei, News Reporter
photo courtesy of Newton Public Schools
The new hybrid model, HyFlex, a pilot of live-stream teaching where teachers interact with remote and in-person learners simultaneously, will begin on Jan. 27, 2021. The final plan, approved by the School Committee on Dec. 2, concluded months of work by the High School Working Group (HSWG).
The HSWG was formed in early October and was composed of administrators, teachers, students, parents and staff who were tasked with creating new and revised learning models, following the School Committee’s August decision to cancel the return to in-person learning in September.
The group aimed to improve upon flaws in the hybrid plan presented in August. In the previous model, hybrid students would return to the building in two separate, alternating cohorts, and distance-only students had to enroll in a separate Distance Learning Academy (DLA), where they would be isolated from hybrid learners and teachers.
The HSWG identified three main weaknesses in the initial hybrid model during a presentation to the School Committee on Nov. 16: restrictive space constraints in the building, insufficient numbers of staff for the students requesting hybrid instruction and inequities between DLA and hybrid students.
Principal Mark Aronson said the DLA had numerous flaws that were unacceptable.
“We weren’t sure whether we could staff it,” he said. “We weren’t sure whether we were going to be able to have the distance learners being taught by Newton Public Schools teachers.”
To mitigate these concerns, the HSWG proposed increasing the number of cohorts and allowing students at home to actively participate in the same classes through Zoom.
Families filled out a survey due Dec. 13 to determine if their students would return to hybrid learning or stay online-only. In a Dec. 9 student Q&A, Aronson said it was unlikely that there would be two cohorts of hybrid learners. He said that space restrictions and the expected amount of those opting for in-school learning would increase the number of cohorts.
In a Dec. 22 email to parents, however, Superintendent David Fleishman said there would be two cohorts, with each cohort meeting twice a week.
May Chiu, president of the Parent Teacher Student Organization and member of the HSWG, said that the modifications to distance learning was a significant change.
“One big improvement is that there’s no separate DLA. Whether you’re fully remote or choosing in-person for the hybrid portion, you are seeing the same teachers,” she said.
Another main focus for the HSWG was input from the community. All students, families and staff members were given a survey in mid-November to express their opinions on the current learning model and evaluate their priorities moving forward. The survey received 2,573 responses from students at the two high schools.
Survey results indicated that students, families, and staff members alike placed an emphasis on social and emotional well-being, continuity throughout the year and adequate safety measures regarding the coronavirus.
Aronson said the survey indicated that students wanted to be learning in a hybrid model with their peers.
School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said the new plan reflects the community’s desire for a smooth transition between models.
“The goals of the working group were to create opportunities for both in-person academic and non-academic experiences and to do it with the least disruption to the current schedule,” she said.
The HSWG also looked to examples from local high schools that have already implemented a hybrid model. Aronson said he was satisfied with the conditions in schools.
“I was really surprised and pleased that the safety concerns seem to be minimized by the fact that the students follow the rules,” he said. “There’s no real need for students to be reminded to safely distance or to keep their mask on and so forth.”
With a rush to distribute new technology, including special microphones, to teachers for the HyFlex model, Director of Information Technology and Library Services Steven Rattendi said that he plans to acquire enough equipment to support the model by early or mid-January.
Fleishman said that the HSWG produced excellent work. He said that all sides of the reopening debate were represented, including students, parents, teachers and administrators, and that the HSWG was thoughtful in their decisions.
Math and physics teacher Ryan Normandin, however, said he is not satisfied with the HSWG and their plans. Normandin said that the group did not deliver on their promises.
“I’ve heard a lot of ‘Look, there’s no good option’ as an excuse for HyFlex, but just because there’s no good option doesn’t mean you just go with any option,” he said. “I wish that we had put more time and consideration into choosing one of those models.”
Goldman said that the pandemic has placed immense pressure on everyone, regardless of their opinions.
“I have never spent as much time on the School Committee in my seven years as I have in the last six months,” she said. “It’s been a little crazy.”