The Winchendon School Committee held an emergency meeting on Monday, August 31, bumping a scheduled joint meeting of the Board of Selectmen and Finance Committee to Wednesday, September 2. The School Committee meeting was attended by more than 120 members of the public as well as School Committee members and school administration and staff. With only two weeks before the start of the 2020-21 school year, some drastic changes have had to be made in the reopening plans voted on and sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) by the School Committee.

Murdock High School Principal Thad King told the meeting attendees that the high school will not be able to reopen on the combined hybrid and all remote models as planned.

Mr. King explained that more students elected the remote model than initial responses from the survey done in July indicated. The high school has 135 students choosing the hybrid plan and between 88 and 92 students electing all-remote. 20 students will be on the dual enrollment program and half a dozen will be homeschooling or transferring to private school.

The administration had considered outsourcing the remote learning program to a private company so that teachers could focus on the hybrid program students in classrooms. But with 90 students in the remote plan, outsourcing would be cost-prohibitive. Based on the July survey numbers, the high school had counted on only 50 to 60 remote learner students.

"We do not have the faculty and capacity to support both our hybrid students in person and have enough time left out of the teachers' schedules to support the 90 remote students," said Mr. King. The only solution, given the available staff, is to put all the high school students on the remote plan.

Mr. King said that the high school first realized that both models were not workable last Wednesday or Thursday. Because of the complexity of the two reopening models and the number of different classes high school students can sign up for (Honors, Advanced Placement, college courses, various levels of mathematics, different science courses, and so on), student schedules were largely worked out by hand. Eventually in this process it became clear that there was no way to schedule the teachers with enough free blocks of time to teach both hybrid classes in person and remote classes via online platforms. Mr. King said that they were able to free up a single English teacher with sufficient time and that was all.

DESE has not changed the requirements for graduation. The MCAS exams are scheduled for the spring of 2021, both for this year's 10th graders and 11th graders who did not take the MCAS this past spring.

The School Committee will have to notify DESE of the change in plan.

Jessica Vezzina, Principal of Murdock Middle School, stated that the middle school has 180 students on the hybrid plan, 78 remote learners, 8 ALL students and 5 homeschooling. The middle school is all set to begin school with the hybrid model, and they are also prepared to switch to all remote at any time.

Toy Town Elementary School Principal Mary Aker said that her school also has more students electing the remote learning plan than indicated in the July survey. Teachers for the remote learners would be dealing with nearly 40 students at a time. Because of this, remote students will be separated into cohorts on an alternating schedule in the same way that the hybrid students are.

92 remote students in grades 1 and 2 will also be separated into cohorts, said Memorial School Principal Michelle Atter.

The School Committee voted unanimously to approve the plan for the high school to open on an all-remote model. Mr. King said that letters will be sent to the high school parents in the next couple of days.

But the elimination of the hybrid model and assigning all students to remote learning at Murdock High School was only the first of the sudden course changes to be discussed at the meeting.

Superintendent Joan Landers explained that, in light of the recent focus on the critical importance of ventilation in buildings and vehicles to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, and new guidelines about ventilation from the state, the school district had air quality tests done in all school buildings. Ms. Landers hired a consultant from Efficient Facility Solutions who worked with the school district last year. He has been working with an HVAC specialist during the past two weeks to evaluate the circulation in the facilities. The consultant has given proposals for work to improve the HVAC systems and maximize air flow throughout the buildings.

Ms. Landers said that the schools could try solutions such as installing fans in the windows, but this would not be practical for cold weather. She is recommending that work be done in all of the school buildings. This should be completed by October 5. The evaluation and the repairs will be paid for by COVID emergency funding from the state.

This would entail delaying the opening of the school buildings for the hybrid plan students until October 5. School would begin with remote learning only on September 14 for all students.

After some discussion, the School Committee and administrators agreed to open school buildings to hybrid plan students on Monday, October 19, after the first academic progress reports for the middle school and high school come out on October 16. All students in all grades will be engaged in remote learning for the first month of school. The School Committee voted to approve this schedule.

Mr. King stated that there is no plan to change the high school to another model, and they will be on the remote learning program "until further notice." School Committee member Karen Kast stated that "we have to be realistic" about the possibility that all the schools may have to stay on remote learning longer than October--possibly until next spring, depending what happens with the rates of infection in Massachusetts. Keeping everyone safe must be the first priority.

The meeting was opened for comments and questions from parents. Concern was raised about technical support and the availability of Chromebooks for students. School Committee member Felicia Nurmsen asked how they could possibly begin school on an all-remote learning model when every student does not have a Chromebook. There are no spare Chromebooks available. The district is waiting for several orders of Chromebooks to arrive, with delays due to difficulties getting shipments from China where many computers are manufactured.

Ms. Landers said that they will send out a survey to find out how many students need Chromebooks, and how many have computers and laptops at home that they can use. Students can use any computer, they don't need a school-issued Chromebook for their classes. Some hotspots will be available for families who lack internet access. Paper packets and books can be sent home for students, as well.

Ms. Landers said that the state will allow schools to resume distributing free lunch and breakfast to all students when school starts on September 14.