‘Backed Into A Corner’: Reluctant School Committee OKs High School Hybrid Plan

Photo: Belmont High School

Saying they felt “backed into a corner,” the Belmont School Committee voted “reluctantly” for students at Belmont High School to enter into the approved hybrid learning phase.

The proposal which passed 5-1 with Evelyn Gomez voting no, will become operational on Thursday, Oct. 22.

“I just don’t think for high school that the hybrid model of this type is the way we should be going and I’m very, very reluctant to support it,” said Andrea Prestwich, school committee chair who led the effort to seek changes to the hybrid plan that would increase instructional time.

Under the current plan, teaching time for each student will decrease from 180 minutes in the current remote learning phase to 95 minutes in hybrid with 55 minutes in class, limiting educators to teaching the most significant areas of a subject – how to propose and defend an argument and not the proper usage of commas and articles – and leaving high schoolers in AP courses to seek classes outside the school to prepare for the important tests.

But Prestwich acknowledged while the proposed schedule created by High School Principal Isaac Taylor is “the wrong hybrid and the wrong time” and it may be advantageous to stay in the remote system, “we don’t have that choice, in fact.” In September, the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education singling out Belmont along with other districts that were considered “safe” to do so to place students in classrooms.

Several members also noted that Belmont is hampered in making quick changes to the model as it doesn’t have the resources in teaching personnel or staffing to set aside for such a project.

Saying she had received “many, many emails from people who have said, ‘How come Belmont can’t do it when Weston is doing this and Lexington is doing this,” Committee member Tara Donner commented that “I think its good to mention again that our amount of staffing compared to our student body” is far less than other communities. For example, Weston has a student/teacher ratio of 11.3 to 1, while Belmont stands at 16.5 to 1.

“I don’t think we have the staff capacity to start from scratch at this point,” said Donner. “I wish we did, I want to do it differently,” she said but the time for students to have “some kind of in person relationship established with teacher” for this school year is closing, so reiterating Prestwich’s statement, “I basically feel backed into a corner about it.”

While agreeing with the committee’s sentiment, School Superintendent John Phelan said it wasn’t feasible to attempt the changes suggested by the committee and many parents of high school students with the hybrid plan having just been implemented.

Phelan acknowledged that all districts statewide are “trying to maximize the instructional value” in their hybrid systems, he suggested the hybrid phase in Belmont continue as voted through the winter holiday break and into the New Year.

“The deserve to be implemented for a few weeks to a month to get a good handle on what’s work and what’s not … and really rehash where we are and make improvements where we can especially after the winter break and into terms three and four,” said Phelan.

“I honestly feel that when we give our educators a chance to be in a model for a period of time that the feed back we can recieve from family and students and from fellow educators, that creative idea will come from that,” said Phelan.

Student representative senior Alex Fick conducted a survey of the students and discovered that while 50 percent of his classmates would approve moving to a hybrid model in general, two-thirds would say “no” to the current hybrid system.

“They don’t think this hybrid model will suit our needs,” said Fick, who noted comments to the survey revealed that “remote is working well for students … and we should try to develop it more rather than ruining to a hybrid which seem to provide risk with no real benefit as we are losing instructional time.”

Committee member Kate Bowen felt that the approved hybrid system is “something to build on” as it’s like “any creative process and its difficult to go through it … “but I do think it’s important for student to meet their teachers in person to be in the building.”

As for those who worry on the reduction of teaching time, “take a little breather there and consider that those minutes may have a greater value than you can anticipate right now,” said Bowen, noting that a decade from now students will be surprised what they learned during this time and not “the precise minutes you spent in any one class.”

Gomez said if the committee is committed to building on something, it would make more sense to make those improvements while students remain in the remote phase “before we ask people to switch.”

And after hearing from Fick, Gomez believed the model was beyond repair “and I hate saying” that it made more sense to start over.

Member Amy Checkoway said she would also support making significant changes to the hybrid plan if it could be done within at most 10 days “but I don’t believe it’s possible.”

“I feel comfortable with moving forward because I think there’s some real mental health issues I know happening in some households with students that we haven’t probably talked about enough,” she said.

Yet in voting to support the move from remote to hybrid, Prestwich continued to advocate for major changes to the hybrid plan sayiing her vote was based on “an effort over the next couple of weeks to figure out how to increase the instructional time within the model.

“I don’t mean January, I don’t mean December. I mean the next couple of weeks. We need to look at every single way possible, to increase the instructional time within the context of that of the model,” she said, which could include streaming classes on line, hiring more teachers “so that we can move the curriculum along much more efficiently than in the current model.”

The final motion read “Moved, that the school committee approves the current plan to move the high school to hybrid by Oct. 22 provided that efforts are made to impove with a model, especially wih regard to instructional time, going forward.”

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