New schedule and COVID–19 mandates

by Taban Malihi, News Reporter, & Sarah Wei, News Editor
graphic courtesy of NPS

This year, South will experience changes in both the school’s COVID-19 protocols and its block schedule.

This past spring, Newton Public Schools (NPS) formed an independent Medical Advisory Group (MAG) composed of eight medical professionals, who met over the summer and publicly released their finalized recommendations on August 18 for a safe return to in-person learning.

The group was guided by state-wide requirements set by the Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education (DESE), which required schools to return to in-person learning five days a week, announced in an August 13 memo. 

In its final report, the MAG strongly supported the decision to fully reopen. The group also produced a set of guidelines for the district’s COVID-19 protocol, including weekly COVID-19 testing, strict indoor mask-wearing and a strong endorsement of vaccinations for all eligible.

The MAG and the Massachusetts Board of Health both have not yet mandated social distancing for the school year.

Principal Tamara Stras said that the decision to leave out social distancing from the guidelines was based on efficacy statistics when taking into account high vaccination rates. 

“We are not going to be social distancing because we’ve actually looked at the numbers of the percentages of students who are vaccinated … [which] are steadily going up,” she said. “The health board has decided that just the masks without social distancing should be plenty to keep any possible infections at bay,” she said. 

Throughout the process of drafting a transition plan, School Committee chair Ruth Goldman said that the district’s priority was ensuring the safety of all.

“Our values [were having] the least amount of disruption for students being in school, meaning we don’t want students getting sick … and also protecting folks who are immunocompromised or live with people who can’t get vaccinated, our most vulnerable,” she said.

In addition to the new guidelines, another major change for South will be its new block schedule, which was released in late spring. It features two new elements that replace the previous flex blocks: a once-weekly Lion block and a thrice-weekly What I Need (WIN) block. 

Vice Principal Jason Williams said that Lion blocks provide time for clubs to meet, while WIN blocks are flexible blocks for students to meet with teachers and catch up on work, among other options. 

“It’s going to give people an opportunity to pick what they feel is best to do,” he said. “It’s going to help teach students that they can make those choices, and when they go off to post-secondary school, they’re able to make those choices and do better for themselves.” 

Junior Sophie Strausberg said that she hopes the new structure will provide less homework as well as more time in the building to get work done. 

Some students, however, like senior Jane Shen, a School Committee student representative, are not satisfied with the new schedule. Shen said that the weekly Lion block will not be sufficient in accommodating all club activities. 

“We don’t have any room for clubs,” she said. “Because the school is so club-oriented, [the new schedule] just makes it really difficult to find time for all the interests students have.”

Sophomore Kaveri Krishnamoorthy said that on top of an unsatisfactory new schedule, the school has not been transparent enough with the changes it has implemented.

“The administration hasn’t communicated with us properly as to what we want in terms of scheduling. It just said, ‘Oh, here’s the schedule now,’” she said. “I also don’t think they’ve properly communicated about how [the schedule] actually works in terms of functionality.”

In response to student criticism, Stras said that the administration welcomes feedback, which, in their eyes, is essential to providing students with a positive experience. 

“Part of launching something successfully is constantly monitoring it, constantly assessing it and then looking at the feedback to see what can make it better,” she said. “We’re looking consciously and intentionally at what practices we have on hand on the social-emotional side of things and what we can do proactively to ensure that you have the right skills needed to be successful. That’s not just academic, it’s social and emotional, [and] all of those things go along with it.”