BERLIN — The Berlin school board Thursday night narrowly approved a hybrid school reopening plan that allows for both on-site instruction and remote learning. The vote was 3-2 to approve the model put forward by the school administration, working with a 40-member reopening committee.
Parents will select one of the two options for their child. Superintendent of Schools Julie King said a preliminary survey showed about 70 percent preferred the on-site option, with students attending classes at the district’s two school buildings.
The remainder wanted to stay with remote learning.
King said the school district will be sending out sign-up forms Tuesday, which should provide a definite count. While the decision rests with parents, King said the administration is willing to talk parents through the decision and will give input if it feels strongly on one or the other option for a particular student.
Classes will start Sept. 8.
The plan sets phases for the on-site classes based on the level of positive coronavirus cases in Coos County and in the Androscoggin Valley. If the level of positive cases remains low, the on-site classes would be held at the schools in what is called the green phase. If cases increase, the plan allows for the school district to go entirely with remote learning on both a temporary (yellow phase) or on a long-term (red phase) basis depending on contamination trends in the county and immediate communities.
The plan calls for face-to-face instruction for students in grades K-3, Monday through Friday. A separate teacher will be assigned to provide virtual instruction to remote learners. The school day will be shortened.
Students in grades 4-12 attending on-site will have classroom instruction on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and will work independently on assignments and tasks on Monday. Friday is designated for staff planning and office hours with teachers.
Remote students will have instruction on Monday and work independently on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday with Friday again designated for office hours and staff time. Career Technical Education students will attend on-site Monday through Friday in the vocational center.
Concern with the model at the meeting centered on the handling of students in grades 4-5. Several parents said they thought the middle school students should have five days of face-to-face instruction, like the students in grades K-3.
Susanne Styles said the middle school students are scheduled to get three days of instruction and noted the days are shortened. She said students that age cannot be left home alone, forcing parents to find daycare or an afterschool program.
Jen Buteau and Kayla Lavoie agreed with Styles, but suggested the five days of instruction should include sixth graders as well.
Buteau said that would ease the burden on families and allow working mothers to stay employed.
School board member Matt Buteau said he agreed with the parents.
Board member Jeanne Charest suggested starting on-site with the younger students up to grades 4 or 5 and then phasing in the other students once the kinks are worked out.
King said the board was being asked to approve the hybrid model and said the plan is still being worked on.
“The details we’re still working out,” she said.
King advised, however, that the district may not have the staff to increase the face-to-face instruction for grades 4 and 5 to five days a week. She said that might require hiring an additional teacher.
The board voted to approve the model with Chairperson Louise Valliere and members Ann Nolin and Scott Losier voting in favor and Charest and Buteau opposed.
King said remote learning will look different that it did this spring because staff has had time to prepare. All students will be using Google classroom, making it easier if the school has to go to remote learning for everyone.
The superintendent stressed having the remote learning option is important because with social distancing requirements, the buildings cannot accommodate all the district's students.
She said the option allows those parents who feel more comfortable with their students being out of the building to have them at home.
Athletic Director Craig Melanson said sports are an important part of the education program and the district is working to reduce the risk and allow kids to safely compete in athletics.
He said the N.H. Interscholastic Athletic Association has pushed back the dates for the fall season with high school practices allowed starting Sept. 8 and competition getting underway on Sept. 18.
Melanson said the NHIAA is allowing schools to pursue more regional schedules by removing the requirement that they play a minimum number of games in their division to be eligible for the post-season tournament.
There will be no standings and there will be an open tournament format.
That frees up Berlin, which is a Division III school, to play schools in the North Country that are smaller and in different divisions.
Melanson said field hockey is a tough one to schedule because there are not many schools that offer it and that may require the Berlin team to travel further.
Student athletes will wear neck guards that can be brought up over their mouth and nose when the student goes on and comes off the field.
Social distancing will be practiced when sitting on the bench and riding the bus.
Melanson said student temperatures will be taken as they get on the bus and there will be no stops for food. The locker rooms will be off limits and students will wear their uniform to school on game day.
He said he has arranged with Water Works to have two 275-gallon water tanks set up so players from both teams can wash their hands when they come out of the game. Anyone attending a game must wear a mask.
Melanson said NHIAA will not allow more than two to three teams at a cross-country meet and that means the Paul Letarte Cross Country Invitational Race at Great Glen will be canceled this year.
Twenty teams were expected to compete. Also canceled will be the popular Berlin High Homecoming celebration. Melanson said the teams will still play but the parade and celebration will not take place.
Middle School teams will also compete this fall but the elementary fall sports program will be moved to spring.
The school board also heard presentations from the nursing staff, Building and Grounds Director Bryan Lamirande, and Director of Special Services Martha Miller about the steps taken to prepare for students to return to school in the midst of the pandemic.
Isolation rooms will be set up in both school buildings for students who show signs of COVID infection.
Masks are required wearing for students and staff and extra wash stations are being set up through the buildings.