by Jenny He, Jaesuh Lee, Alex Merkowitz, Preethika Vemula, Lily Zarr & Alexa Zou
photo by Cindy Liu
The Newton School Committee released data on Jan. 11 on students’ learning model selections for the 2020-21 school year.
59.5% of all students selected the in-person model, while 39.3% chose remote learning. There was a significant disparity between the percentages of white and BIPOC students who chose each learning model in Newton Public Schools (NPS) high schools. While only 31.8% of white students opted to remain fully remote, 57.3% of Asian American students, 50.8% of Black and African American students, 44.2% of Hispanic and Latino students and 40.8% of multiracial students chose the remote model.
School Committee Chair Ruth Goldman said that the disproportionate prevalence of COVID-19 in Black communities may have contributed to a lower percentage of Black students participating in the in-person model.
“We looked at surveys where Black students said they wanted to come back to school, but were concerned about safety,” she said.
Senior Laila Polk said that the low percentage of BIPOC students in the in-person cohorts might be a result of the higher rates of preexisting conditions in those communities. She also said that students of color may mistrust the administration due to its past actions.
“There’s already ingrained distrust between students and families of color and the administration, just because the administration has been very insensitive to their concerns for a long time,” she said. “So when the administration says it’s safe to come back, no one believes it.”
At 29.1%, freshmen were the least likely to choose remote, and as students got older, the likelihood of them choosing remote increased, with 46.7% of seniors choosing remote learning. Both English Language Learners and Free-or-Reduced-Lunch-eligible students were overrepresented in the remote model.
For junior MJ Kim, his home set-up made his choice clear.
“I wanted to do hybrid at first because I wanted to get out, but I realized that I did not want to risk it,” he said. “I live in a small house, so if I get COVID-19, there is nowhere for me to go, and it would be a big liability [for my family].”
Sophomore Julie Wang said that she chose the in-person model because she wanted to regain the in-person interaction that has been largely absent since the beginning of the pandemic.
Following August’s original proposal — with an in-person option and a separate Distance Learning Academy (DLA) with different teachers and classes — 85.2% of families elected the in-person option. The DLA raised concerns of inequities between remote and in-person students. In the current plan, all students attend the same classes.
Senior Melissa Shang, who created a petition advocating against the original hybrid model due to health and equity concerns, said that while she elected remote learning because of personal health conditions, she is more concerned about the potential risks for teachers.
“I’m getting the same quality of learning in my classes, I have the same teachers as my classmates despite the fact that I chose [remote], so I think that is equitable,” she said.
Before choosing between remote and in-person, most students had experienced remote learning for nearly half of the year, which history teacher Jamie Rinaldi said may have informed their decisions.
“Some students were surprised by the benefits of distance from [hyrbid] learning,” Rinaldi said. “But a lot of students feel alienated by it because the lack of social connection is a real absence in their life.”
Teachers have not been given the same degree of choice as students on whether to return to the building, math and physics teacher Ryan Normandin said.
“Last spring, teachers were able to request remote accommodations if they or someone they lived with or cared for was at risk,” he said. “Now, you’re not guaranteed remote accommodation, though [Human Resources (HR) and NPS] are required to give you an unpaid medical leave if you request one through the Family Medical Leave Act.”
English teacher Kelly Henderson said that applying for remote teaching was stressful and unclear.
“I did have conversations with my department head and with our principal, and they tended to defer to the latest answer from the city,” she said. “Everyone was worried about making the wrong decision because the rules would change. [Administrators’] mode was to go with what HR was saying, and steer me in that direction.”
Normandin said that he would teach in-person if NPS adhered to more stringent safety regulations.
“I would be in person right now if [the School Committee] had implemented a weekly surveillance testing program at the beginning of the year,” he said. “I’d love nothing more than to be in the building and working with students face to face.”
English department chair Brian Baron said that few teachers have requested an unpaid medical leave. Baron said that, with an unpaid leave, teachers do not receive payment when they are absent and will likely be unable to reclaim their jobs until the following school year.
Baron said that as the HyFlex model continues, it is imperative to care for the needs of remote students.
“The thing we need to pay attention to is the kids who are fully remote,” he said. “There’s a tendency to pay attention to the people in front of you, and we have this group of people who will never be in that situation. We need to make sure that we’re carving out time to pay attention to their learning as well.”