As start of school draws near, plans take shape

Sep 9, 2020

As Dartmouth educators and students prepare to start the year with virtual lessons on Sept. 15, officials have held information sessions for parents and staff to ask a multitude of questions on reopening plans.

The virtual learning platforms have been chosen: elementary students will receive remote lessons through Dartmouth schools’ own system, middle schoolers will be using the TECCA Connections Academy online school, while high schoolers will use a system called Edgenuity.

But officials have said that the school system’s Bush Street office has been inundated with questions from families as the start of term approaches.

In late August, staff held a remote Q&A session for parents to explain the virtual platforms.

Edgenuity “has a full curriculum and courses and electives that a student can enroll in and be self-paced,” said Chief Technology Officer at Dartmouth Public Schools Jonathan Gallishaw at the Aug. 27 session. “Our teachers will oversee that process.”

At the elementary level, Director of Teaching and Learning Tracy Oliveira noted officials could’t find the kind of high-quality system they sought — “So [we’ve decided to] kind of create our own virtual academy.”

Six teachers will be hired for each grade K-5 to run virtual classes from a large music room at Quinn School, with the lessons held through Google Meet, Oliveira explained. She added that parents have to commit to the remote system for the entire year if they choose this option.

Meanwhile for the middle school, TECCA edged out Edgenuity due to its more supportive structure, according to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford, who spoke at a School Committee meeting on Sept. 1.

Parents can choose between hybrid or completely virtual lessons, and will be able to switch each semester.

“Each school is reaching out to parents who expressed interest in virtual platforms,” Gifford noted, but since each school is different, parents can contact individual schools with questions.

This week educators are also finishing ten days of professional development focused on remote learning and safety guidelines in the time of Covid.

“Folks were busy,” Superintendent of Schools Dr. Bonny Gifford noted of the first development session at a School Committee meeting on Sept. 1.

Meanwhile, preparations for hybrid learning are ongoing, with learning and transportation schedules and some high-risk extracurricular activities in question — although fall sports and the marching band and color guard programs are continuing with strict safety measures in place.

Staff were also able to attend an Aug. 28 information session with UMass Dartmouth associate biology professor Dr. Erin Bromage, who has consulted on Covid safety for businesses, schools, and government bodies, to learn about avoiding outbreaks in schools after students return in person.

Bromage recommended strict enforcement of mask wearing and social distancing as well as maintaining ventilation, air flow, and filtration to rid classrooms of virus particles in the air. 

Aerosolized particles and respiratory droplets account for 80-100% of all infections, he noted, while surface transmission accounts for only about 5% of infections.

“Jump on students about mask use,” he said during the session. “Mask use is our best defense no matter where you are.”

“It’s been really a unique, complex time for us to deal with,” said School Business Administrator Jim Kiely at the Sept. 1 School Committee meeting, before outlining what has been done in the school buildings since March to make them safe for students. (For more on school buildings, see page 6.)

Ventilation safety measures included HVAC maintenance, cleaning, filter changes, adjusting settings to increase fresh air exchange, and repairing and installing windows to ensure fresh air is readily available in all classroom spaces, Kiely stated.

At the same meeting Gifford spoke about the various grants needed to complete the work.

“If people think this is cheap — it’s not,” she said. “The money spent is astronomical.”

Thus far the school system has received $258,599 from the Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund (part of the federal CARES Act), as well as $82,508 from the state’s Remote Learning Technology Essentials grants for expenses incurred from virtual learning.

“We’re basically trying to develop three education systems,” Gifford added.