Why did Mt. Hope scale back to one day per week?

At the 11th-hour, the district decided Mt. Hope could handle only 18% of its student population

By Scott Pickering
Posted 9/17/20

In July, the Bristol Warren Regional School District unveiled a school reopening plan that would have Mt. Hope High School students back in the building half the time, and learning from home half the …

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Why did Mt. Hope scale back to one day per week?

At the 11th-hour, the district decided Mt. Hope could handle only 18% of its student population

Posted

In July, the Bristol Warren Regional School District unveiled a school reopening plan that would have Mt. Hope High School students back in the building half the time, and learning from home half the time. It was labeled the “hybrid model,” built because the district decided it could fit only half the student population while maintaining social distancing guidelines throughout the day.

In August, Mt. Hope Principal Deb Dibiase described the challenges they were working on, literally measuring every classroom to position desks six feet apart and to create enough cafeteria spaces around the building so every student could eat alone and stay six feet away from everyone else. She took a photographer around the building and showed the changes being made everywhere.

Later in August, the district announced that Mondays would be “Virtual Support” days for the older students, meaning Mt. Hope students would all stay home every Monday and go into the building two days a week — so at that time 50 percent of the students would still be going into the building 40 percent of their school time.

In September, the Bristol Warren Regional School Committee held a marathon meeting that ended with a controversial 5-3 vote to open schools on Sept. 14, along with the rest of Rhode Island. Mt. Hope was part of that plan. Then on Sept. 9, the Mt. Hope plan changed dramatically.

In a second marathon meeting attended by hundreds of teachers and parents, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jonathan Brice requested school committee permission to scale back the Mt. Hope plan. He announced they would like to open under the “limited” plan drawn up in July, where students go to school one day a week and stay home the rest of the time.

It was a surprising announcement to most people, and it came two days before the school was poised to open.

The state’s fault?

So what happened?

During the Sept. 9 meeting, Dr. Brice repeatedly referred to “new” facilities guidelines from the Rhode Island Department of Education, released Aug. 24, that specified six-foot spacing between high school students. He read verbatim from those guidelines: “Here’s what the guidance from RIDE, that was released on August the 24th, says. It says ‘if stable groups are not possible, high school students must maintain six feet of physical distancing.’

“That is a game-changer for us,” Dr. Brice said. “It is a game-changer for us, because we are unable to fit the number of students who have opted in. Remember our high school. Our high school is a small high school.”

Dr. Brice referred to the lateness of the Aug. 24 guidelines numerous times during the Sept. 9 meeting on Zoom, implying that the new information forced them to re-think everything. “We have gone back into the building, utilizing this guidance. We have measured our classrooms once again.”

During a follow-up interview on Monday, he reiterated that the guidance came late in the process: “The issue is that guidance continued to evolve. We built our plan based on guidance that we received in June. … I think just like every superintendent in the state, you would have liked to get those documents [the Aug. 24 guidelines] earlier when we were knee deep in planning. We had to submit our plan in July,” he said.

Yet it would appear the six-foot guideline was widely known and accepted months earlier. On June 19, the state released its much anticipated “Back to School Guidance” for Rhode Island school districts. In a section devoted to high schools it states: “If stable groups are not possible, high school students must maintain six feet of physical distance and require the wearing of face masks if maintaining six feet of distance is not possible.” The state later issued guidelines that stated everyone should wear masks, in addition to the six-foot distancing.

Furthermore, when the district released its own reopening plan, on July 16, it stated: “When students and teachers enter their classroom and are seated at their desks, spaced six (6) feet apart, or in stable groups, teachers will instruct students of the option to remove their mask or face covering.” Per state guidance, this optional mask clause was later removed, and again, masks became mandatory at all times.

Surprises in head count?

The other part of the Mt. Hope dynamic is the number of students who opted to return to the building, rather than stay at home as full “distance-learners.” Dr. Brice implied several times during the Sept. 9 meeting that the decision was being made based on the number of students who had opted in.

“Parents made their selections for distance learning prior to the release of this guidance from the state, and with the measurement of six feet, we are unable to accommodate every student who wants to return twice per week,” he said.

Dr. Brice explained that dynamic further during a phone interview on Monday, Sept. 14, saying: “We offered the distance learning option, and it was certainly our hope that the distance learning option would draw enough students” and reduce head count.

Yet on Wednesday he was asked again about the Mt. Hope change, specifically whether there were any surprises in their estimates of how many students would be returning to the building. He said there were no surprises.

The Mt. Hope student body is 990 students. Of those, 287 (29 percent) chose distance learning. That leaves 703 students opting to come to school; split into two groups, that would be roughly 351 students in the building every day. “This number is approximately what we expected,” he wrote in an email on Wednesday.

Curriculum challenges?

During an email exchange on Wednesday, the superintendent offered a new explanation of what altered the Mt. Hope plan at the 11th-hour. He wrote: “As a part of the scheduling process, you look at the number of students in each section. The number of students in approximately 70 sections exceeds the capacity to place them in sections based on [state] guidance. Many of these sections are core academic, as opposed to elective. If the sections were electives, hopefully you could find another elective for the student. There is no alternative for required core courses.

“Based on the number of students that selected in-person school, some sections cannot accommodate the number of students, even in the Hybrid [model] — leading to the recommendation to move to a Limited model at the High School, which was already part of our plan.”

He went on to provide an example: “The high school operates approximately 500 separate class sections. Ex: English 9 (12 sections). In a non-pandemic year the high school scheduler would balance students across sections of English 9 with up to 28 students per class; social distancing would not be a consideration. The number of students for in-person exceeds our ability to adhere to the guidance and place in the classroom.”

Not an easy decision

While understanding the significance of the decision to scale back high school operations, Dr. Brice noted the impact on students and families. During the Sept. 9 Zoom meeting, he said: “My recommendation is that we open in a limited, in-person model, due to the inability to ensure that everyone maintains at least six feet of space between each student in class. That is not something I take lightly. It is not something I want to do. But here’s where I put a stake in the ground. We are dealing with a novel coronavirus. None of us are medical professionals, but we certainly have a responsibility to adhere to the guidance provided. And that is what the guidance provides. And that is what I want us to do for our students and staff. Do I think that this is hardship? Absolutely.

“Let me be clear to everyone in our community, all of our parents, all of our students: The absolute best type of education is for all students to be in class all the time, with teachers. At this time, we are unable to do that. We must adhere to the guidance provided. I can’t speak to what other school districts are doing. I can’t speak to why they’re making the decisions they’re making. But I can speak to what decision I want us to make. And the first priority that we have for everyone, students and staff alike, is health and safety.”

The school committee approved his recommendation unanimously and the building opened to approximately 175 of its 990 students, or 18 percent of the full student body, on Tuesday.

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