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Bellingham Schools Reopen Despite Challenges of Covid-19

Oct 29, 2020 06:00AM ● By Pamela Johnson

Bellingham Superintendent of Schools Peter Marano

by Carrie Renda, Contributing Writer
    
The 2020-2021 school year began like no other, but before it could begin, hundreds of man-hours had to go into preparation.
   
In Bellingham, surveys were sent out, families were polled, and meeting after meeting was held to discuss the data and family responses. Plans were made, then re-tooled, and alternate plans created. Schools were opened, procedures tweaked, and more meetings held to discuss ways to improve.
   
The sheer magnitude of the time and effort that went into preparing to reopen the schools was staggering. Before the district could even begin any planning, they had to wait for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education (DESE) to send guidelines to all of the districts. In the meantime, Bellingham families were surveyed to see whether they would want their children in the school buildings and on buses. When DESE’s Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance was received, the 27-page document contained guidance on everything from sanitizing the buildings, to physical distancing requirements, to busing restrictions.
   
Once the guidelines were received, the superintendents in the Blackstone Valley Curriculum Consortium began meeting to discuss best practices for the school year, building around DESE’s framework. Here in Bellingham, committees were formed so that each section of the guidelines could be carefully analyzed and turned into an actionable plan. Finally, three proposals were drafted—one for full-time in-person learning, one for full remote learning, and one that was a hybrid of both. All three were then presented to the Bellingham School Committee. The result was a decision to send the children back into the school buildings in a hybrid model, with the option for families to choose full remote schooling.

While each town has its version of what “the Hybrid Model” looks like, for Bellingham it meant splitting the students into cohorts (groups) and giving each of the first two cohorts two consecutive days of in-person learning and three consecutive days of remote learning (one in-person group attends school on Monday & Tuesday; the other group attends on Thursday and Friday). There is also a cohort of fully remote students and a cohort of students who were prioritized for in-person learning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Wednesdays, the entire town has a remote learning day while the schools go through deep cleaning.

To support the new hybrid learning model, the district hired 12 teachers and instructional learning assistants (ILAs) as well as 10 permanent substitute teachers. When asked about the permanent subs, Superintendent Peter Marano explained that “those are people who stay [in the building] all day. If a teacher’s out, they know they have a sub ready to go. And if [someone is not busy subbing], that person can help out in other areas.”
   
Also hired was a new Remote Learning Coordinator whose responsibilities include making sure that fully remote students are logging on and completing assignments as well as checking their attendance and grades. If any of the fully remote students are struggling, this person will be poised to intervene quickly. “We wanted to make sure we had that extra line of support for kids who were full remote,” said Marano about this new role.
   
The Technology Department ordered a multitude of Chromebooks for the students to use at home and the district’s Transportation and Sports Departments went through a complete retooling of their processes. Just before school started, the federal government announced that they would provide free meals—breakfast and lunch—to all students, so the Nutrition Department devised a system for providing those to the students learning remotely.
   
Thus, step by step, bit by bit, the administration and the families of Bellingham collected the scattered pieces of information, guidelines, opinions, and data and created organization from the chaos.
   
Finally, on September 15, 10 days later than was originally scheduled, Bellingham Public Schools opened its doors to the first cohort of hybrid-model students and fully in-person students. Meanwhile, the second hybrid cohort and the fully remote students began this year’s unconventional learning model in their bedrooms, in their living rooms, and at their kitchen tables. There were struggles as students and families adjusted to the new learning model, but the biggest glitches were with the technology. A lot of planning and work had been put into the infrastructure to accommodate the remote learning aspects of the new year. But theory and practice are two different things, and Bellingham quickly found its system strained by the large number of remote students logging in all at the same time. The issue was addressed immediately, however, and most families are now reporting few to no connectivity concerns.
   
The administration and families are now focused on continuous improvement. To help the teachers teach, a shipment of more powerful Chromebooks was ordered for running remote synchronous learning sessions. To provide families with technical assistance, a helpdesk phone number/email address was set up. To ensure that things are running smoothly, all the principals have been holding meetings with their school communities to gather feedback; and the teachers are directing their attention fully to helping each child meet the standards for their grade, despite this year’s challenges. There are still some families reporting struggles working in the hybrid and remote models, and teachers are reporting struggles with providing remote and in-person learning at the same time. But there are people working to mitigate those issues now. Also, the USDA has approved free meals for everyone through the rest of the school year, which is great news.
   
Supt. Marano has reported that parents are reaching out to him about bringing more students back into the schools. While the DESE guidance to the districts has been to bring as many students back into the schools as possible, Marano has said that he will not compromise the six-foot distancing protocols that he has put in place to keep the students safe. He noted that he would need to see a few months’ worth of results with things running as they are before he will consider bringing more students into the schools.
   
On the other end of the spectrum, the administration is keeping a close eye on the daily and weekly data about COVID cases both in Bellingham and in Massachusetts so that they are prepared to pivot to fully remote learning quickly if needed.
   
Things will continue to be different for students for the foreseeable future—limited extracurricular activities; no school dances or after-school clubs; a scramble to find new ways to do fundraising; and, of course, social distancing—always social distancing. And all of this uncertainty is bounded by the fact that the state has not yet released the FY’21 budget, which would indicate what Bellingham would receive in funding.
   
But Marano has been vocal about his appreciation for the district’s administrative team, teachers, and staff as well as all the support they have received from the families, saying, “We wouldn’t be where we are without the administrative team and our staff­—and, to be honest, all our parents and kids too. Everyone has been really, really supportive in doing the best we can to get kids back in because we recognize how important it is for kids to continue their learning.”
   
So would anyone say the 2020 reopening went smoothly? We are in the midst of a deadly pandemic—of course, it didn’t. There were new rules to learn, technology issues, disagreements, and more. For some, the first weeks were challenging but exciting. For others, it felt like a living nightmare. But wherever you stood and whatever you felt, in customary Bellingham fashion, people came together as a community: helping each other figure things out, bringing each other meals, and letting neighbors cry on their shoulders when they needed to—virtually, that is.
   
Peter Marano may have said it best when he said, “We’re committed to doing the best for our students, and we’re going to keep doing that, but we’re going to have bumps and bruises along the way. As long as everyone can be patient and follow all the guidance that’s put out there and keep practicing the things that they’re telling us to do I think we’re going to be okay.”

It’s a different world, this “new normal,” but Bellingham is facing it together and we’re stronger for it.

 

 

 

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