LUCA KELLEY NIELSEN/SAGAMORE STAFF
Members of the Brookline School Committee (BSC) presented final details about the upcoming hybrid model for grades 10 through 12 over Zoom on Nov. 5. They also hosted an open session where students, teachers and other community members could express their thoughts about the committee’s functions.
The meeting came after the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) Nov. 3 strike on the district-wide professional development day for faculty and staff. Although the meeting agenda did not include discussion about the strike, many teachers discussed it during their time slots.
Kayla Nicholson, an English Language Learners (ELL) teacher at the Lawrence School, said the recent failures in negotiations between the BSC and BEU have led to the current situation.
“For months, we have been working productively with the school committee to reach an agreement that allows us to keep the buildings open with children and adults inside,” Nicholson said. “Last week, our efforts to conclude an agreement were derailed when the school committee refused to establish a six-foot social distancing rule between students. This was foundational to our months of negotiations since all other safety protocols rest on the assumption of this.”
Nicholson said the district needs a social distancing protocol that would calm some of the students’ anxiety.
“The school committee wants flexibility in adjusting the six-foot distancing and have proposed suggestions—all have been refused. Susan and Dimitry , you both agreed that procedures may help ease the student anxieties Claire talked about,” Nicholson said. “If you put a distancing procedure in the agreement, it will be there as a solution to help ease the anxieties.”
Lindsay Linton, a paraprofessional, Brookline resident and mother of three students in the Brookline Public Schools (BPS) system, said she does not feel safe going into the buildings without enforcement of social distancing.
“I am a single mother of three children, and I refuse to put myself at risk just because the school committee cannot establish a written protocol,” Linton said. “It seems everything inside the schools are unorganized and rushed, and if that is how it is going to be, we have to come together as a community and not put people’s lives at risk.”
Ann Collins, a 17-year veteran librarian at the high school, said she is concerned about the transparency between teachers and the BSC as result of issuing of reduction-in-force notices (RIFs) to educators this past spring.
“At a community forum organized by the Brookline Parent Organization, with several school committee members in attendance, when asked by the moderator why issue pink slips in the amount of $20 million in savings—more than triple the deficit at the time—the answer was a desire for flexibility,” Collins said. “Similarly, desire for flexibility is the answer for why the school committee has not established a six-foot social distancing guideline into writing.”
Student Council Co-Chair and student representative to the BSC junior Claire Gallion read some responses to a survey put out via Canvas for high school students that asked for comments about the transition to hybrid learning.
“‘I am scared of going back. I am worried about everyone in the building being susceptible to COVID-19 so easily and without a 6-foot social distancing protocol in writing, our safety cannot be guaranteed,’” Gallion read from one response.
Gallion said that she and the majority of the student body is questioning the safety of the schools because of the risks with potentially contracting and spreading COVID-19.
“Ever since I was in elementary school, my teachers have told me that school is a place I should feel safe in, and that has always been true until now. I need the school committee to take full responsibility for whatever happens during the hybrid model,” Gallion said. “With over 50 percent of students saying they do not feel comfortable going back to school, is this really a pro-student plan?”
Interim Superintendent Dr. James Marini shared his report, which observed student behavior at the Driscoll School. He said that elementary school students were generally excited to go back to the buildings in-person, and they were following the COVID-19 guidelines and safety precautions, which differed from Gallion’s reports. Gallion’s report showed the feelings of high school students whereas Marini’s conveyed the feelings of middle school students, which are two completely different statistics.
Finance Subcommittee Chair Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Marini said students are always anxious about the school year and the district has set up appropriate safety precautions such as guidance and other support staff. Gallion said she does not believe this holds true at the high school.
“I believe the experiences of a high schooler differ drastically from the experiences of a middle schooler and even from a broad viewing of students on social media, I can see how they are genuinely scared about the hybrid plans,” Gallion said. “Right now, talking with a guidance counselor or peer cannot help as much as it needs to.”
Gallion said external forces may cause high school students to participate in the hybrid model.
“Many students feel pressured to join hybrid for a variety of reasons. They may have their parents forcing them into joining, they may believe their quality of education would be higher, they may feel too isolated,” Gallion said. “It is important to recognize how not all students that join hybrid are comfortable with doing it.”
Contributed reporting by Oliver Fox