WINCHESTER — After more than three months of remote learning, students are scheduled to return to in-person classes four days a week beginning March 8, Winchester School Principal Valerie Carey announced at a school board meeting Thursday evening.
“In our last meeting, I was saying that it may be that at some grade levels, they can return four days a week, and at other grade levels they might only be able to return two days a week,” Carey said. “But our staff has really put the time in and put the work in to creating schedules and plans so that all of our grade levels can return four days a week.”
The majority of students will attend in-person classes Monday through Thursday, and learn remotely on Fridays, Carey said. Preschoolers and kindergarteners will come to school Tuesday through Friday, as they did before the school switched to remote learning in November. Families also can still choose for their children to learn fully remotely once in-person classes resume.
“We do have to remember that we still have to commit time to our remote learners,” Carey said. “And while we will have multiple teachers providing support to those remote learners, they still need some individual time or small group time with their teacher on those fifth days of the week.
“And so we have to make sure that we’re meeting everybody where they are, and the reality is that some of our students are at home.”
Winchester School, which enrolls about 440 students in preschool through 8th grade, transitioned from a hybrid model to fully remote instruction on Nov. 16, after Cheshire County eclipsed a seven-day rolling average of 10 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, a tipping point laid out in the school’s reopening plan.
The school board voted to stick with remote instruction at its Jan. 7 meeting and to re-evaluate that decision at least at the first meeting of each month. After the last board meeting Feb. 4, the district sent out a survey to families asking whether they want their children to return to a hybrid model or remain fully remote. School leaders used that feedback to formulate the plan to bring students back to in-person classes four days a week next month.
The survey found that about 81 percent of the 270 respondents wanted to send their children back to school under a hybrid model, while 18 percent wanted to keep their children fully remote, and a small number wanted to choose another option, such as homeschooling.
The school board previously discussed the possibility of students resuming hybrid learning March 15, to give teachers more time to prepare for the switch after next week’s winter break. But Gov. Chris Sununu announced Thursday afternoon that he intends to sign an executive order requiring schools to offer at least two days of in-person instruction per week, effective March 8.
“It sounds like we don’t really have that decision to make, because March 8 is the day,” school board Chairwoman Lindseigh Picard said during the meeting Thursday evening.
As the district prepares to return to hybrid instruction, Carey said that staffing levels remain a challenge, since some teachers have medical conditions that prevent them from returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“For those staff who are not able to return for medical reasons, we have had to try to figure out how to fill those gaps,” she said. Specifically, the school is turning to certified interventionists, who normally work in small groups or one-on-one with students experiencing behavioral challenges, to teach some in-person classes.
“So I do want us to acknowledge that we’re making a concession here,” Carey said. “It’s a tradeoff. We think it’s an important tradeoff because we want kids here as much as possible, but just acknowledging that there will be some reduced interventionist capacity for the foreseeable future as we get back to this hybrid model.”
Overall, though, Carey said she and her staff are eager to welcome students back to school.
“So many of us are super, super excited,” she said. “We’ve been just waiting to get kids in this building.”
Before switching to remote learning last fall, Winchester School had been operating under a hybrid model in which students were split into groups that attended classes on campus and remotely on alternating days. High-schoolers from Winchester attend Keene High School, which operated fully remotely from Nov. 30 until Feb. 1, when the school returned to a hybrid model.
All other area districts have returned to some level of in-person instruction, after the vast majority of them switched to remote learning in response to the spike in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season.
The Monadnock Regional School District — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — is the only local district that has remained in a hybrid model through the entire academic year, though individual groups of students and schools have switched to remote learning at times due to COVID-19 cases within the schools. Hinsdale schools temporarily switched to remote learning Thursday after learning of two student coronavirus cases, and are scheduled to return to fully in-person classes March 1.