ORR district works on final preparations for covid school year

Sep 8, 2020

Teachers, faculty, staff and administration are coming into the home stretch before the school year starts on Sept. 16 in a hybrid format that will split student’s time between learning at home and in buildings, depending on the day of the week. 

For the coming school year, the goals for Old Rochester Regional School District Superintendent Michael Nelson are straightforward: “Maintain our high educational expectations, while creating safe, meaningful, and memorable learning experiences for our students.”

To make these goals a reality during a global pandemic though, the district has been planning for student’s return since before the last school year ended.

“I feel very confident about how our school community has positioned itself to be able to start the school year in a hybrid learning model based on our current local conditions,” Nelson said in an interview with Sippican Week.

Since Aug. 31, teachers, faculty and staff have been back in buildings, sitting through extensive training sessions and planning for how to teach their students safely throughout the school day. 

“It’s kind of exciting to build a school plan from scratch,” Old Rochester High School Principal Michael Devoll said. 

The district voted to shorten the school year from 180 to 170 days to accommodate for the time spent training teachers, faculty and staff at the beginning of September.

The 10 days include training for all staff members and planning time for teachers on an individual basis and with their grade levels or departments, Nelson said. He said the district is also focusing on coronavirus safety and precautions, and preparing staff members to be able to pivot to different learning models if necessary. 

“I always feel that when our staff members are provided time to work with one another — the student outcomes only become more positive,” Nelson said.

Throughout the entire district, all students will spend Mondays at home learning remotely. Each school will be split into two cohorts by last name and learn in-person based on the day of the week. Cohort A learns in-person on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and cohort B is in-person on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Students also have the option to learn in a full remote setting and can switch to a hybrid model at any time.

In person, students will learn in socially distanced classrooms and have mask breaks scheduled into their day.

At home, students will participate in live and passive learning sessions that will build off of in-person instruction. Teachers will check-in with their students when working remotely and give regular opportunities to participate with the students who are in the opposite cohort.   

At the high school, building staff are laying down tape in the hallways to direct one-way student traffic and taking desks out of classrooms to accommodate for social distancing. 

It will help Devoll and other administrators keep track of students throughout the day. 

“We cannot have this year be unexpected, everything has to be planned,” Devoll said.

In the event that contact tracing is needed, knowing how many students are taking buses to and from school, or where students are in the building, is now something that needs to be tracked, Devoll said. 

Nelson said that planning has been complex because the district is looking at everything from classroom setups, to fire drills and bathroom protocols. When one issue is solved, he said, ten more arise that need to be addressed. 

One of those issues is ensuring the airflow through schools are up-to-speed. 

Nelson said at a Sept. 1 Marion School Committee meeting that the ventilation systems were inspected throughout the district by an independent inspector, and he was “extremely pleased with the results,” and that there is nothing inhibiting air flow. 

To get to the point of setting up the school buildings, a vast amount of work had to go into planning.

“A lot of people don't realize what’s been happening behind the scenes,” Marion School Committee Chair Michelle Smith said.

In the last two weeks, the committee spent 20 hours a week meeting to work out details for reopening with the district.

Teachers and staff are now also back in the school buildings and are preparing for their students to return. This includes an almost entirely new staff at the district’s central office.

“Based on the time of year and needs of our schools — the new central office team is really jumping right in and supporting our buildings to open schools in the most meaningful way possible,” Nelson said. 

Dr. Jannell Pearson-Campbell was recently hired by the district as the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning. Since starting her role, Dr. Person-Campbell quickly went from being trained for the job, to training teachers on how to do their job during covid. 

Dr. Pearson-Campbell said at the Marion School Committee meeting that she is “truly thankful that we’re going to figure this out together.”

As for teachers, Sippican School Principal Marla Sirois said that in the first week, teachers gave her “very positive feedback and are very pleased and excited” to be back.

Feedback is something that parents and community members have been providing to the district over the last few weeks. 

Both Sirois and Devoll have held Q&A Zoom sessions for parents to voice any questions and concerns. 

Nelson said he is “truly grateful and humbled by so much support we have” from district stakeholders. 

The first day of school for Old Rochester Regional students will be on Sept. 16. 

Devoll said that he and all the teachers, faculty and staff are eagerly awaiting the return of their students on that day.

For Nelson, the message he gave to the Tri-Town is one of trust.

“Although it may be frustrating to not have every answer to every question right now regarding the upcoming school year — please have full confidence in your educators that have been and will continue to work tirelessly to provide a high caliber 2020-2021 school year.  Yes — the school year will look different, but we know we will be ready to serve our students and families no matter what learning model we are in. The staff members that work in our schools are highly dedicated and talented educators who push want nothing more than to start working with their students again soon.”