WESTFIELD – The Westfield School Committee voted unanimously at the end of a four-hour meeting on Aug. 10 for an amended hybrid model that would bring back Westfield Technical Academy’s Career Technical Education students to their shops on the first day of school in Phase 1a, and then wait several weeks and require a new vote by the committee before the next group of students could return.
The original hybrid model would have brought in high needs students, which include students that receive more than 50 percent of special education services, English language learners, and students who are homeless or in foster care in the first wave along with the tech shop students.
This plan was changed after the committee listened to the recommendations of Board of Health Director Joseph Rouse, who urged the district to do only remote learning through the end of the calendar year 2020.
Rouse, who has been meeting regularly with the Back to School Safety Committee, said he is concerned about the recent uptick in cases nationwide.
“The hybrid model is good, but not initially. We are in a safe zone right now in our island of Massachusetts; all around us is red,” he said, adding that initially the district will have people coming back who have visited other states, who may have been exposed. “We don’t know who the carriers are. In the first two weeks, possibly a month, any model except strict remote learning scares me,” he said.
“I don’t want to see a situation where you start up and have to shut down. We’ve already seen the governor take a step back. I don’t want to see us regress,” Rouse added.
Rouse’s recommendations came following a presentation by Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski and district administrators that laid out a detailed plan which included a phased in hybrid model of remote and in person learning rolled out in phases. The presentation is posted at schoolsofwestfield.org, under Back to School information.
The amended plan voted on by the School Committee basically delays the start of each phase, requiring a new vote and a recommendation from the Board of Health before moving to a new phase.
In the amended plan, high needs students would return to school in Phase 1b, and pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students would return in Phase 1c. Czaporowski said the intention would be for these students to come in every day once conditions allow.
Phase 2 would be for the transition grades 1, 5, 7 and 9; students who will be attending a new school. “We didn’t have the opportunity to do what we would normally do during the summer, with open houses and tours,” said Czaporowski.
In Phase 3, all other students would be brought back to school in cohorts on alternating weeks for in person learning, except those who choose to continue strictly remote learning.
Czaporowski, who must submit the plan to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Friday, Aug. 15, said the School Committee could still vote on the existing plan with the amendments, as no dates for the phases were included in the original plan.
The entire plan is subject to approval by DESE and negotiations with district unions.
School Committee member Cindy Sullivan pushed back at first against Rouse’s recommendations, saying she was shocked to hear him recommend waiting until Jan. 1 to bring students back, because she hadn’t heard that from any other public health director in Western Mass.
Rouse said he meets monthly with the Hampden County Health Coalition, made up of 20 area communities who meet monthly to talk about public health preparedness. He said sometimes he departs from the group when their agenda is different from Westfield’s, or is politically motivated.
“In the 22 years I’ve been with the city, the City of Westfield has marched to their own drum. We have a unique form of government; not a cookie cutter. I have been proud that we have not just acclimated to what everybody else is doing, we’ve made our own decisions based on science and facts,” Rouse said, adding that in his perfect world, from a public health perspective, students would stay out of school with remote learning until there is a vaccine ready to distribute.
Rouse also said he foresees an uptick of cases in October, based on the history of what’s happened in other countries.
Regarding the Technical Academy students, Rouse acknowledged that they need to have hands-on learning. “In my head I would think of that as more of a workplace than a school,” he said. Westfield Technical Academy currently alternates weeks for CTE and academics. Academics at the school would be taught remotely until Phase 3.
Vice Chair Tim O’Connor said while the School Committee’s focus is on the students, there are teachers, administrators and other staff in the buildings as well. “Any thoughts on how they may be concerned about being back in a situation where kids may be coming back from traveling,” O’Connor asked Rouse.
“All your questions are things I’ve been thinking about. I do personally think a lot of our responsibility is to our employees; we owe them a safe work environment. I’ve talked to a bunch of teachers, and they’re scared about going back,” Rouse said, adding that many are people of ages that are highly susceptible or who have preexisting conditions. He said especially the first two weeks to a month of the school year is going to be very critical.
“You owe them some allegiance that you’re going to protect them. I am concerned about that,” Rouse said.
Bo Sullivan said the people who are going to be on the front lines of this if something happens are the school nurses, who have been working directly with the Board of Health during the pandemic. He asked whether Rouse thought the district has enough nurses.
“We’re definitely understaffed with nurses. There are not enough nurses employed by the city who can handle this. We’re talking about COVID rooms; one nurse can’t deal with a COVID case in one room, and deal with the rest of the students in the other,” he said.
Rouse also gave a lot of credit to the 10 school nurses who volunteered with the city during the shutdown, helping with contact tracing. “Kudos to your nurses,” he said.
After questioning Rouse, most School Committee members were convinced to delay in person starts for the majority of the students in the district. Ramon Diaz, Jr. recommended that a review and assessment of the status of COVID in Westfield be added to every School Committee agenda, and votes taken when conditions allow to bring in more groups of students.
“Given the information provided by our Public Health Director Joe Rouse, I think the committee voted appropriately,” Czaporowski said, following the meeting. “The School Department will work closely with the city’s Health Department moving forward, as we move through the phases of students returning to school.”