OTIS — Students at the Beech Hill School in Otis will start the year on Sept. 8 in a hybrid-by-choice model similar to many other schools in the area after the Otis School Committee unanimously approved a plan on Monday evening.
“This isn’t going to be the spring experience, emergency schooling. This needs to be an authentic and engaging learning experience,” said Superintendent and Principal Nichole Pothier. “This is going to be live, synchronous classrooms. Both groups are receiving the same instruction at the same time, just one happens to be at school and one happens to be at home.”
The hybrid model approved on Monday prioritizes having younger children in school close to full time: for kindergarten through third grade, students who choose the hybrid model (rather than full remote) will attend four days in person, while students in grades 4 through 8 will be split into groups. One group will be in school on Mondays and Tuesdays, the second will attend on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are designated as a “cleaning day,” with all students learning remotely until noon and the afternoon reserved for teachers to have some training time.
“I believe that our teachers need training to offer good, solid distance learning experiences,” said Pothier.
“It’s really out of their element — not something they can’t learn to do — but something they need a lot of training around doing.”
The plan will be in place for four weeks, committee members decided, at which point they will reassess the situation.
Committee members said they were eager to have all students back in school full time as soon as it is safe to do so.
“My intent is to get kids back in school. I just feel that these kids have got to be back in school as soon as we can safely do so,” said School Committee Chairman Bob Cote.
Many parents wondered what would happen with the fall sports season. Pothier noted that several schools in Beech Hill’s league have canceled their seasons, including the Airline School and Veazie Community School, and suggested that Beech Hill have smaller group sports rather than a competitive league. Committee members supported that idea and said they would reassess after the first four weeks.
“I think we can get creative, come up with some avenues so that kids can stay after school and participate in some of those things,” Pothier said.
At the moment, with some inventive room arrangements, the school appears to have the capacity to have the students who want to be there in school, said Pothier. The school has a total of 86 students enrolled. Pothier said she plans to survey families again in the coming days to see how many want a full remote option and how many want their students in the building part time.
A previous survey of parents found families split on whether to go back to school full time, with 42.5 percent in favor of going back to school, 32.5 percent preferring a hybrid model and 25 percent preferring remote. A little less than 30 percent were concerned about child care if the school does not fully reopen.
Classrooms will look a bit different, of course: desks will be spaced 6 feet apart, and all students and staff will be required to wear face coverings (per state guidelines). Face shields will be an allowable alternative for students with medical, behavioral or other challenges who can’t wear a mask. There will be mask breaks throughout the day.
Like many districts in the area, the school is looking to fill several positions, said Pothier, including a bus monitor, a school nurse and a kindergarten teacher.
“A couple of people have inquired” about the nursing position, said Pothier, “but they’re not looking for full-time employment” and she said she’s unsure of whether someone would be interested in leaving their job to take a full-time job just for the year.
Committee members emphasized the need to be flexible when looking for candidates, noting that they had had trouble filling a guidance counselor position for several years, and said if the interested candidates were to want two or three days per week they should consider that, to which Pothier agreed.
Pothier said she also feels the school has “other needs, like social, emotional development where we might need to hire a consultant.”
“I think about how large gatherings of people have not taken place since March and this is the first time large gatherings of people have come together,” said Pothier, “and we’re doing it in schools and I just want to get it right.”