With neighboring high schools having already transitioned to hybrid learning models, Newton Public Schools (NPS), under pressure from some parents and students, announced the adoption of its own HyFlex model to begin in late January for both North and South. The announcement was a long time coming, as many students at the high-school level have observed their friends in peer districts and private schools experience far more in-person learning opportunities and pushed for the same.
The timing of Newton’s transition, however, is bizarre to say the least. As many neighboring school districts that started the year in-person are transitioning to all-remote models to avoid the current second wave and expected post-holiday-season spike in COVID-19 cases, North and South are heading into in-person learning. Although NPS claims to prioritize student and staff safety, a lack of communication, vague safety guidelines and equity issues have made the upcoming transition to the HyFlex model unpromising at best.
One of South’s core values, “listen first,” was ironically neglected, and there was little to no transparency in the HyFlex planning process. For students and teachers, opportunities to voice concerns and feedback during the planning process were limited. Even when members of the community were able to provide input, students and teachers said they do not believe that the model adequately reflected their feedback.
In early December, the High School Working Group, composed of teachers, students, parents, administrators and School Committee members, sent out a survey asking students, teachers and parents about their priorities regarding academics, social-emotional well-being and extracurricular activities; it did not ask for input regarding the day-to-day logistics of in-person school. Even with the survey, the HyFlex model still failed to reflect many students’ and teachers’ perspectives.
A lack of communication and transparency has been an issue since last spring. Without students’ and teachers’ input, planning for the return to school will ultimately fail, compromising safety and quality of education. At the end of the day, students and teachers are the ones who will be physically back at school; their voices should thus have been held paramount.
Failures in communication have bred even more severe issues like safety. While staff is offered testing, the frequency of the testing, once a month, is critically concerning. While most other schools and workplaces have weekly testing, NPS has failed to put together a comprehensive testing plan. The only glimmer of testing available to students is in the form of a stock of potentially inaccurate rapid testing kits in the nurse’s office that are to be used only in the event that symptoms develop while at school, ignoring those who are asymptomatic and contagious. Take the Wellesley Public Schools, for example, which has offered optional testing weekly to students and staff — in November, the high school found six positive cases and promptly took action to move to a remote model for two weeks.
Even with two question and answer sessions for students, information about lunches, transportation and other details remains uncertain. Many students are unsure of the effectiveness of in-person learning accompanied by live-streaming, a downfall of choosing either model. With minimal sanctioned social interaction, it is hard to evaluate whether going back in-person will ultimately benefit students’ social-emotional learning, and it certainly won’t to the promised degree.
Newton’s plan for hybrid learning at the high-school level has left many families and staff members feeling disillusioned and unheard. In a community already so fiercely divided over the topic of reopening, Newton should have prioritized hearing the needs of all community members. There is still time for the city to take action to ensure a safe return for everyone, but it’s running out quickly.