Monomoy Regional High School’s new principal Jen Police and her staff are ready for the school hallways to once again be filled with the sounds of students engaged in learning come Sept. 14, though this year it won’t be quite as many, nor learning in quite the same way as they did in the days before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived on Cape Cod.
Only about half to two-thirds of the school’s 687 students will be in the building on a given day, with the rest working remotely to ensure social distancing guidelines are followed. Those that are in the building – a group that will alternate based on various criteria (last name, cohorts) – must follow strict mask-wearing protocol, as well as the mapped out directional floor plan in hallways and the school’s library.
Each school day will begin at 10:35 a.m. and end at 3:15 p.m., with students breaking up a six-class schedule across two days, three classes per day. They have been assigned cohorts based on last name, with the cohorts determining which students are in school and which are learning remotely.
“That’s going to allow for less physical contact time in the building, and also reduces the amount of transitions,” Police said. Previously, the school had eight transitions; that's now down to three.
Police said those choosing solely remote learning were also considered when the new schedule was created.
“If we were going to do this well, we had to be really thoughtful about our students first,” Police said. “Those that opted to be home and working remotely, I felt like putting them in a position in which they were online all day was not healthy, which is why we opted for three classes.”
The schedule also allows plenty of staff development and adaptation to the new ways of doing things.
“We really wanted to make sure that we gave our teachers time for professional development, professional collaboration, and the ability to problem solve if needed,” Police said, adding that should the need arise for schools to shift to fully remote learning, it can be done within a day.
To keep traffic patterns flowing and students socially distanced, the parent drop-off and pick up locations have been swapped with bus drop-off and pick up so that parents will now head to the rear of the high school, while buses will pick up and drop off students out front. When lunchtime rolls around, students will eat in their classrooms and not in the cafeteria, and intensive special needs students will remain in their classrooms throughout the day.
These and other important changes are all part of what’s being dubbed the “new normal,” aimed at keeping students and staff safe while allowing them to return to school. Police said she and her staff have been working tirelessly to prepare the high school for reopening, with teachers prepping classrooms and getting familiar with the technology that will be used to connect with remote learners, while the custodial staff has cleaned the building thoroughly and mapped out traffic flow.
In each classroom, measurements were taken and desks placed six feet apart, with approximately 18 desks able to fit in most classrooms. Tape markings on the floor indicate where individual desks should be placed. Drinking fountains have been covered with locked guards, though the water bottle filling stations are open. Hand sanitizer dispensers are located throughout the building, along with signs reminding students to wear masks and maintain social distance.
The health office has been set up so that should a student or staff member show suspected signs of COVID-19, they can be in isolation in the room, away from others until picked up, returning to school when their health improves and they test negative for the virus.
For physical education, Police said lockers will not be used and students must come prepared for PE class, which will take place outside as long as weather permits. That includes the winter months when students will be tasked with dressing appropriately. Should weather prevent outdoor classes, Police said the school gym can handle the small class sizes created by the reopening plan.
“We have alternate spaces that we can use and still allow for appropriate social distancing,” Police said, adding that PE classes are capped at 16 students. With only two-thirds of students in the building, that number drops to 11.
Librarian Sarah Wheaton is seated behind a new glass panel. Behind her sit various bins marked with days of the week. The bins, Wheaton explained, are for quarantining books once they’ve been returned. Each bin is marked with the day of return and the day it can go back into circulation. Wheaton is creating a paperless sign-in/sign-out program for students to use.
“I started looking at this when we were quarantined in the spring,” said Wheaton. “There were more unknowns than there are now.”
Similar measures have been taken at the elementary schools and the middle school, with hallway markings and desks separated. At Chatham Elementary School, Principal Robin Millen said six-foot shark decals have been ordered to help with social distancing, and Cape Fishermen's Supply provided rope knotted at six-foot intervals to use when kids line up.
“There have been some really great donations,” she said. “The community has been so supportive.” Elementary and middle school students will attend classes daily.
The key to the schools' anticipated success is technology, which, along with the “front row seat” cameras in each classroom for remote learners, includes student tablets for home use, smartboards, and Google educational programs such as Classroom.
“You can’t do this without it,” Police said of the high school’s tech. “It’s one of the reasons why we were able to shift quickly last spring even when we didn’t have a plan in place.”
Police said she and her staff are cautiously optimistic about the start of school, knowing it could take a few days for everyone to become comfortable with the new plan.
“I think that people are absolutely willing to give this our best effort,” Police said. “When you walk into this building you can see the work and the thought that has gone into preparing for a safe reopening. I’m excited. I really want to see the kids.”
Superintendent Scott Carpenter echoed those sentiments.
“I think things are feeling well,” he said, adding that staff unions approved the reopening plan and a new memorandum of understanding covering contract changes.
Carpenter noted that part of what made reopening possible was that each school’s HVAC systems were checked by an independent consulting firm, and the subsequent ventilation reports stated that all four of the district’s buildings – Chatham Elementary, Harwich Elementary, Monomoy Regional Middle, and MRHS – have systems in top working order.
“Between masks, distancing, great ventilation, and the low COVID rates on the Cape and particularly in Harwich and Chatham at the moment, we’re in as good of a place as you can be to reopen schools anywhere in the country,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said there were few staff members requesting remote teaching due to health concerns.
“We had less than 10 staff who, for health reasons, were concerned about being in a building with students during a pandemic,” he said. “But when you have a quarter of students and their parents electing for distance learning, we’ve had a number of staff that we had to transition to accommodate the wants from families.”
Roughly 25 percent of families opted for remote learning. Carpenter said that overall, families have been supportive of the reopening plan, though acknowledged some tensions on social media.
“I think there are families that are supportive of the in-person options, and families appreciative that there are options,” he said. “I think the ugliness comes from a want to be able to return this month and have everything be the same. The reality is that it can’t be. There are certain things we can’t do during the pandemic. There are challenges as a district.”
One of the hot topics has been sports, both at the middle and high school levels.
“There’s this want for sports to be back and we’re working with Karen Guillemette (athletic director) and the MIAA to get sports back in a way that’s safe,” Carpenter said. “But it does mean deferring football, and it does mean at the moment we’re going to have to rethink how we do middle school and sub-varsity sports.” Per the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, there are no middle school sports, although Monomoy is looking into the possibility of intramural activities for students. A presentation on school sports will take place during the Sept. 10 school committee meeting.
Meanwhile, Carpenter is focused on a safe reopening for students and staff.
“I do hope that we can open and have everybody do what’s required to keep us open,” he said. “If we’re doing what we need to do to take care of ourselves and protect others, we can do this.”
The Nauset District schools and Cape Tech have similar measures in place, with Nauset High School closed for in-person learning due to ventilation issues.