Distance learning starts in Cumberland

Distance learning starts in Cumberland

A group of Cumberland High School students, with some parents, walk from the school parking lot to the pedestrian bridge over Mendon Road last Thursday afternoon to protest the School Committee’s decision to implement full distance learning in town schools. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

CUMBERLAND – Though the details are not to everyone’s liking, the school year in Cumberland will kick off Monday, Sept. 14, with nearly all local students set to learn from home for up to a month.

The School Committee voted last Thursday, Sept. 3, to approve Supt. Bob Mitchell’s recommendation to start the 2020-2021 year in distance learning mode, with the exception of students in preschool and special populations, with the intent of transitioning to a hybrid model of learning on or before Oct. 13.

Officials, working with ENE Systems, immediately began working on addressing ventilation concerns in the district last week to ensure a healthy and safe learning environment for students and staff.

School Committee members said they’d received hundreds of messages on various platforms making suggestions and leveling criticism over plans, but they ultimately decided to do what they felt was right for everyone.

Committee member Karen Freedman emphasized that Cumberland has a duty to fix its ventilation issues. If other districts were completing similar assessments as the one produced by ENE last week, she said they would have similar results.

Addressing suggestions that the School Committee somehow didn’t know about the ventilation problems until now, Freedman said members have been very clear for years about the air flow problems in the schools.

The school board’s vote was 6-1 last Thursday to back Mitchell’s recommendation, after a 4-3 vote a week earlier to start the year with distance learning. Member Denis Collins was the lone no vote.

Member Mark Fiorillo said he didn’t view his vote as changing from a week earlier when he voted with the majority to start the year with distance learning. With both votes, he said, the intent to start the year with students learning from home was the same.

Committee members had discussed revisiting the first vote a month or two into the school year, said Fiorillo, which is no different from now saying Oct. 13 is the tentative start date for a hybrid model. At least some classrooms, perhaps all of them, will be ready to go by Oct. 13, he said, and at that point the goal will be to bring students back if possible. If not, distance learning should continue.

“My message has been the same all along, it’s not just indefinite distance learning,” he said.

Collins explained that his no vote was based on a combination of not wanting to create an artificial deadline for a return to school and not believing the schools will be ready by Oct. 13. He said he didn’t want to create a false sense of hope for families.

Collins, a teacher by trade, said there are still some unanswered questions about procedures, such as what happens when a teacher calls in sick and who takes over for them, but now that the vote has been cast, he will do everything possible to make it all work. He said he understands the administration is working on a plan, but he couldn’t vote yes until he sees that plan addressing some of his questions. With both votes, he said, he wanted to take a “wait and see approach,” but he felt some in the district are succumbing a bit to pressure from Gov. Gina Raimondo after she gave the green light for schools to reopen next week.

Like other school board members, Collins said he’s received more than 200 emails since the first vote to go to distance learning, and he’s tried to answer all of them, even the very unkind ones.

As Mitchell has stated, safety and security is the top priority, said Collins.

During last week’s meeting, he said what’s good for his children might not be what’s good for someone across the street, and he understands all of the concerns people are bringing up. It’s simply impossible to have everything, he said, so he’s taking a common sense approach in light of what he expects will be another eventual outbreak of COVID-19.

“With all of our opinions, the virus does not care about our opinions,” said Collins, explaining his vote. “The virus didn’t care about taking my father from me a couple of months ago, and it sure as hell doesn’t care about the safety of our children, so I’m a no.”

School board members questioned Paul Murphy of ENE on his company’s lengthy report, which was covered with red showing rooms not ready to go but that Murphy plans to turn to green. Much of the discussion centered on the latest air filters found in state guidance, MERV-13 filters, and how they’re on backorder. Like the earlier toilet paper shortage, officials expect the supply of filters to grow. The district replaced a number of filters over the summer, but those weren’t listed in guidelines released last month.

Fiorillo and School Business Manager Alex Prignano answered questions about why ventilation wasn’t addressed sooner by saying that the district has been focused on numerous other jobs, including asbestos abatement and replacing univents. The town chose to focus on completing the public safety complex first before doing wider upgrades of the schools, said Prignano.

Mitchell said officials can do what they can to fix the situation or stick their heads in the sand, and they’re choosing to tackle the issues head-on. There is no need for more study, he said, but instead a room-by-room addressing of ventilation systems.

Mitchell emphasized that all central office personnel and principals agreed that the hybrid model determined prior to the ventilation report makes the most sense. In that model, every Monday would be a virtual day and students would be split into groups for in-person classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays or Wednesdays and Fridays. Special education and preschool students would be in school four days.

Recent surveys of parents showed a shift toward more families wanting students to be in school physically after Raimondo’s announcements on in-person classes, said school officials. Families who want to stick with distance learning will not be forced to send their students to school.

School Committee Chairman Paul DiModica asked Mitchell to state definitively whether the hybrid plan allows students to return safely to school, and Mitchell responded that yes, it does.

Kerry Carlson, head of the Cumberland Teachers Association, was among those who spoke during the public input part of last week’s meeting. She said protecting people must be the guiding force of any decision, and some 80 percent of teachers polled did not feel comfortable with a return to full in-person learning. Several teachers asked to change their vote after the release of the ENE report, she said.

Sheryl Burke, a Poisson Street resident with children entering schools as 8th- and 12th-graders this year, reminded everyone of the goodwill and kind acts being displayed in the district three months ago. She said committee members are human beings who put themselves out there to run for election and make decisions. Much work has gone into a safe return for students and teachers, she said, and she urged everyone to pause and consider those extra efforts that are being made.

Lisa Cannon, a pediatrician, urged committee members to consider many factors as they proceed, including the impact that distance learning has had on the issues of depression, anxiety, sexual abuse and social well-being. She said in addition to accountability on the air quality work that’s done, she also wants to see the effectiveness of distance learning analyzed.

Cumberland High School senior Shane Johnson holds a sign to protest the recent School Committee decision.
Lisa Doherty, a Cumberland parent, joins students on Mendon Road protesting the decision.