Innovation to Enter Hybrid Learning Model on January 4th

On Monday, November 16, the IACS Board of Trustees voted almost unanimously to shift to a hybrid model on January 4, 2021. 

The decision to shift the model a month later than Head of School Greg Orpen’s originally proposed reopening date of early December was made based on concerns about potential case surges caused by Holiday travel. However, the decision is contrary to guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to prioritize in-person learning.

The original proposal to reopen came after Governor Charlie Baker instructed schools to reopen for in-person learning during a press conference on Friday, November 6. Baker cited studies that showed schools were not significant sources of transmission. At the same time, the state adjusted its metrics for determining the risk of Covid-19 in communities.

Head of School Greg Orpen explained that “a lot of towns that were previously listed as ‘red,’ with red being the worst case scenario of infections in a community, were graded down to ‘yellow.’ Communities that were previously graded as ‘yellow’ were moved down to ‘green’ and so on.” He added that DESE, “revised expectations on how schools should respond to the map.”

Under the new DESE guidelines, districts that are gray, green, or yellow should “have students learning fully in-person, if feasible,” and those that are red “should implement hybrid models, while maximizing in-person learning time for high-needs students.” Orpen noted that there were schools “in close proximity to Innovation Academy that have been running full in-person models successfully this year.”

The hybrid model splits the student body into two different teams. On Mondays and Tuesdays, one team will attend school in-person while the other team learns remotely, and vice versa on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays will be fully remote.

In the high school, students will move between classrooms similarly to previous years. This is in contrast to the proposed model from the fall, where students would have learned asynchronously from advisory. Students’ parents may choose to opt them out of in-person learning, and they will attend their classes remotely even while peers are physically present. The main goal of this plan is to keep learning as synchronous as possible.

“… I don’t want to be the only school in the Merrimack valley not opening.”

Matt Lowe, Board Chair

The Board members backing the hybrid model raised concerns about the mental health of students who have been separated from classmates within the current remote model, as well as the pressure of possible backlash from DESE. According to the Boston Herald, DESE has warned that it may audit schools that choose to remain in a remote learning environment. DESE has already audited Watertown for such reasons. Board chair Matt Lowe mentioned DESE’s history of taking over districts that “aren’t performing academically well.” He added, “I doubt they’ll do that here, but I don’t want to be the only school in the Merrimack valley not opening.”

63 IACS staff members signed a letter urging the school not to open in December, citing the lack of credibility for the Governor’s cited studies, “staff members and students being required to quarantine” because of COVID-19 cases, “lack of transparency regarding the new hybrid proposal,” and the school’s charter and outcomes.

Many of the staff members who’d signed the letter were thankful when the January date was proposed. English teacher Lise Brody said, “January 4th is so much better than right between two holidays.” Brody was, however, worried about the potential of high schoolers meeting up on New Years eve, suggesting that the school “wait ten more days.”

Brody wasn’t the only one hoping to open later than the proposed January 4th date. Chemistry teacher Raks Derival thanked the Board for taking into account teachers’ suggestions, but implored the board to “consider the start date in the spring semester to give us time.” Her main concern was starting the hybrid model right at the end of the first semester when things were busiest for teachers, so she asked the board to consider “pushing it to a February start date.”

Ultimately, the Board members felt the risk of action from DESE would be too great if the reopening date was pushed any farther back than January. 7 of the 8 board members voted to reopen on January 4th, the single opposing member raising concerns about the date being too early before voting against the motion.

Barring any major COVID-19 developments, the Board’s decision to begin the hybrid model will come into effect in just 6 weeks.

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