ORLEANS — With parts of Nauset Regional High School suffering air circulation problems, classes will be fully remote when instruction begins Sept. 16. That’s a switch from the original hybrid plan that called for split weeks of home and in-school learning.
“We will… remain remote until the ventilation system is repaired and brought up to COVID standards,” Principal Chris Ellsasser wrote to teachers Tuesday morning. “The shift is the result of the report issued yesterday regarding the current condition of our ventilation system.”
At an unusual Monday night meeting, the regional school committee “voted to support the shift to remote,” Ellsasser wrote. “Students with specific needs who have been identified as needing in-person learning will use one or more of the classrooms identified as not needing repair.”
Plans to rebuild most of the Eastham school, which dates back to the early 1970s, have been looked on favorably by the Massachusetts School Building Authority and await the judgment of voters in the four member towns, including Orleans, next spring. Antiquated HVAC systems were among the concerns cited in the plans.
In a letter to families and students, Ellsasser wrote that “all academic expectations including attendance and grading are the same for remote learning and hybrid learning. We have designed both models so we can switch back and forth without disrupting routines and expectations. All students will be expected to attend four classes each day of the week following our regular daily schedule.”
The first days “back” at school “will focus on developing classroom cultures and relationships, and showing students how to learn using our remote model,” the principal wrote. “We will also be creating instructional videos and holding support/information meetings for families to help everyone understand how to support students throughout the year.”
There will also be “a student support strategy designed to use day to day data (attendance, grades, wellness checks, late/missing work) to initiate early intervention for students who show signs they might be struggling,” Ellsasser noted.
Plans remain in place for Nauset Regional Middle School to follow a hybrid schedule of in-school and remote learning each week. All air exchange units at the school in Orleans are in working order, according to Nauset Regional School Committee Chair Chris Easley, and will be tested to check whether they meet COVID-level CFM (cubic feet per minute) standards of air flow.
Orleans Elementary School, which is offering either all in-school or all-remote learning, has replaced many of its older heater-ventilator units in the past five to 10 years, according to elementary school committee vice-chair Josh Stewart. “The school does enjoy the luxury of operational windows and exterior doors in every classroom,” he wrote in an email, “so we plan to let Mother Nature assist our HVAC system in keeping the area fresh and renewed throughout the day.” Committee chair Gail Briere could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
It’s a different story at the high school, Easley said in an interview Tuesday. The system’s contractor, Mechanical Air Control of Marshfield, found that almost two-thirds of the school’s air exchange system motors were not working. Superintendent Tom Conrad was at the school Tuesday afternoon to meet with the company.
Easley said he found it “very difficult to believe” that that many units are out of service. When the system had conducted a feasibility study related to the rebuilt campus project a year and a half ago, he said, 29 units were not functioning, The more recent number is close to 70.
“It seems the key element was the fan motors,” said Easley. “In some cases, belts need replacing. In other cases, it’s cleaning… We’re gonna look at what’s required to get the systems up and running and look at expenses, initially with one section.” The regional board expects to have more information at its meeting on Sept. 10.
For now, it appears air quality in the N building will allow in-school instruction “predominately for special needs students and ones with an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) that just don’t do well with remote learning,” Easley said. He’s hopeful that all students will be able to return to the high school eventually, though a schedule for repairs is still in the works.
“What we attempted to do from the start is provide quality education in whatever manner we could,” the chairman said. “It is believed the best manner is having kids in school. That’s the ideal; that’s what we’re working toward.” Asked whether some parents might opt out of the system and home-school their children, he said, “We always knew that was a possibility from the start. For someone to make that decision at this point, it’s a little premature. We’re hopeful we can resolve this one way or another through replacing these things or some creative solution with the air exchanges in there to get air movement to the level we need.”
If the Eastham campus can’t have students in school for a while, Easley said, it can still have them at school. The regional committee voted Monday night to allow students studying remotely to participate in athletics, slated to begin at Nauset Sept. 18.
“The state had been pushing for students learning remotely to not be able to take part in athletics,” the chairman said. “I think the state was doing it as an attempt to get parents to send more kids to school. It wasn’t a rule, that was what they suggested. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way.” Easley said participation by home-schooled students did not come up, but said there’s potential for that if insurance issues can be resolved.
“We don’t know what sports is going to look like,” said Easley, noting changes proposed for soccer that include “no corner kicks, no throw-ins, no drop ball between two players… It’s a big deal to tell people who’ve trained all their life to play soccer to play another game. We could make it a conditioning year and maintain the team aspect.”
The committee approved a school calendar with 175 days of teacher-taught learning, remote or hybrid, for the middle and high schools, Easley said, providing “five days beyond what’s required by the state, so we have some flexibility.”
All this, he said, “is to provide the best quality education we can for our students at Nauset, but we have to do it in an environment that’s safe for our staff as well as students.”