Crisis distance learning wrapped up in June for Cambridge and Deerfield school children, but the two months since have hardly been a vacation for school administrators and staff.
Teams of Cambridge and Deerfield staff and administrators have been working all summer to draft multi-tiered plans for instructing children in September, in whatever manner current COVID-19 guidelines dictate.
On Monday night, the Deerfield school board voted to begin the 2020-21 school year virtually, in hopes of gradually reopening school buildings as fall progresses.
Deerfield had in recent weeks weighed a variety of options, including beginning the year in-person, all-virtual and in a hybrid way. It also developed options for parents seeking a separate path of supported individual, virtual learning for children at home, if they were uncomfortable sending children to a school building.
The Cambridge school board could vote as soon as this week on how to start its school year.
The options and their coming roll-out are as complex as the COVID-19 public health realities driving them.
Decisions must take account the mental health consequences of children learning at home instead of at a school building, rural broadband internet access equity, getting lunches to children in need if they are learning virtually, special needs children for whom virtual learning may not be an option, the level of health risk for students and staff that will change over time as the pandemic progresses, and the cost of the various options.
Cambridge has surveyed parents and at a meeting last week, that was simultaneously held live and online, the school board patiently took questions and listened to parent concerns. A formal community listening session was additionally set for this week in Cambridge.
In Deerfield, the school board last week met in-person for the first time since the spring. That allowed parents, masked and distanced, to attend the meeting in the high school commons and to give valuable in-person feedback. A parent survey is also forthcoming, not on how to begin the year, but on how the school district can best support families in the virtual start of the year, Deerfield administrators say.
Both school districts are also listening to their staff members, and we hope that some of that feedback will be made public, if possible.
One benefit of living in a small school district, where in a typical year we have 50-70 graduates, is the ability to tailor education to the needs of very small groups of students. Our school districts know our children well, and we know our teachers and administrators. We are all neighbors and friends.
That small size may work in our favor now, potentially affording Cambridge and Deerfield schools greater flexibility than larger urban and suburban school districts in setting up buildings for safe in-person learning, whether that happens immediately in September or gradually returns a little later in the fall.
And in a small town, our familiarity with each other lends additional assurance that children won’t fall through the cracks.
Small-town familiarity also may make talking through the potential and chosen options easier, as we all recognize decisions are being made in the best interest of neighbors and friends with whom we have close personal ties.
In the end, with all voices heard, we hope local residents stand behind what our school boards choose, and that we move ahead as the united small towns we always have been.