Wareham schools prepare to bring some students back full time
This story has been updated to reflect new guidance provided by the state’s commissioner of education on March 9.
As students attended their first day of extended in-person learning on Monday, March 8, Wareham Public School District administrators were already back in planning mode, preparing for another goal: bringing back at least elementary school students for in-person learning five days a week by April 5.
On Friday, March 5, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to give Jeffrey Riley, state commissioner of education, the power to decide when hybrid or remote models will no longer count towards required student learning time hours.
On Tuesday, March 9, Riley announced that hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count toward required student learning time hours as of April 5 for elementary students. For middle school students, hybrid and remote learning models will no longer count as of April 28.
On Monday, March 8, Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood said the district was currently preparing to meet the April 5 deadline to bring elementary students back to school full-time. At the time, she said it had not yet been decided if the plan for five days of in-person instruction would apply only to elementary schoolers or if it would extend to students at the Middle and High Schools.
Following the commissioner of education’s announcement, however, Wareham Middle Schoolers must be back for five days of in-person instruction by April 28, or the district might be forced to turn to summer school to meet its required learning time hours.
Under the current plan, which started on March 8, students of all ages who attend Wareham schools through the in-person hybrid model remain broken into two groups called cohorts.
Each cohort attends in-person classes each week for two full days that are only slightly shorter than standard pre-covid school days. One cohort attends classes Monday and Tuesday, and the other attends classes Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is a remote day for all students.
During off-days — meaning the days a student’s cohort isn’t learning in-person — the student is responsible for completing worksheets, readings and online activities on their own.
To make it possible for students to spend five days a week in the classroom, cohorts must be combined — one of the biggest shifts since in-person instruction began on Oct. 5.
Shaver-Hood said the district is evaluating the implication of that change, and awaiting guidance from the state on reopening goals.
“The first implication will be desks will need to be moved in and students will be 3 feet away from one another — currently they’re 6 feet,” Shaver-Hood said.
Lunch presents another challenge. Students only began eating lunch in schools again March 8, and combining cohorts means almost twice as many students to socially distance at lunch time.
“Once we bring both cohorts back together, we are going to be looking for other spaces for lunch to be served, if we’re still 3 feet apart,” the superintendent said.
Shaver-Hood emphasized that students would not have to change teachers because of the return to full-time in-person instruction.
“By this point in the school year, both students and parents have significant bonds with the teachers,” she said. “Making a change like that at this point would just not be a positive move.”
Although some districts might be allowed to apply for waivers to take a more phased-in approach to returning students to the classroom full time, Wareham has no plans to apply for such a waiver, Shaver-Hood said.
But the district has no plans to apply for such a waiver, Shaver-Hood said.
“It’s always been our goal to have students return as soon as it was safe,” she said, noting that the district has kept a close eye on positive cases of covid-19 in schools. “With the exception of possibly two [cases], we have not had anything spread within the school. It’s all been from without.”
Shaver-Hood added that while some students are quarantined (some due to travel), currently no students in the district have tested positive for covid.
“We feel like we’re ready to continue to move forward,” she said.
She noted, however, that the commissioner’s new authority to require school districts return to in-person instruction came with some problems.
“This has pretty much taken local control away from districts,” Shaver-Hood said. To achieve the best outcome in a situation like this, she said there must be “significant collaboration” between the administration and the unions. “When anything is mandated, it takes away some of the collaboration that should take place, as well as [...] some of the communication. For that reason, I’m a little bit disappointed.”
Shaver-Hood said she thinks increased in-person instruction will be beneficial for students, even though Wareham has not seen much of a lag in learning. She also emphasized that the district would continue to prioritize safety for staff.
“Just making sure everybody is safe and protected is very essential,” she said. “After we’re starting to get people vaccinated, I think maybe the anxiety will lessen a little bit.”