Community Volunteer Plan A No Go

Ava Carlson ('21) and Ally Tesoro ('21)

Following several weeks of discussions and planning in an attempt to increase the amount of in-person education for high school students, Reading Public Schools superintendent John Doherty announced the cancellation of RMHS’s new “community volunteer” plan on Monday the 16th. 

The announcement, sent via email to RMHS parents on Monday afternoon, brings an end to administration’s exploration of a plan to modify the current hybrid model. The now-scrapped “community volunteer” model was originally presented to the RMHS community on November 8th through Principal Boynton’s weekly newsletter, in which she stated, “We are exploring whether it is feasible to bring our students back to the original hybrid model…with the use of community volunteers.” According to this plan, parents and guardians could volunteer for unpaid time slots to monitor students in satellite classrooms, which would function as rooms containing half of each class’s students to allow for proper social distancing in the building. If 300 volunteers were obtained each month, the new plan would have allowed each grade to attend in-person classes on 4 days every other week, instead of the current 2. 

Nancy O’Brien was one of the RMHS parents who volunteered for the new hybrid model prior to Monday’s update.

 “I think it [the use of parent volunteers] was a great idea and I was willing to give my time to allow for more kids to go into the school,”  she stated. 

Fellow “community volunteer” Suzanne Carlson, a parent of a senior and freshman, echoed the same sentiment.

 “I was anxious to volunteer because I wanted to help things get back to normal in the school, and I was glad they were giving us parents an opportunity to help,” she said. As of Monday, 130 community members had volunteered for 246 time-slots in an effort to help RMHS students, according to an email from Reading School Committee member Carla Nazzarro on Monday.

Reading Public School administration’s decision to develop a new hybrid model follows a recent update from Governor Baker and other top state education officials calling for a drastic increase of in-person learning across all Massachusetts schools. According to a WCVB report from November 6th, Baker called for the change after recent data showed that in-person education does not lead to increased risk of transmission of the coronavirus. In the same story, WCVB also reports that Massachusetts Education Secretary James Peyser announced, “Any school districts in the gray, green, and yellow categories are now expected to prioritize in-person learning unless there is suspected in-school transmission.” Although Reading has remained in the “yellow” category for the last several weeks, RMHS students entered their tenth week of hybrid learning on Monday in a mostly-remote model of only 4 in-person days each month.

Yet amidst rising cases across the country and in Reading, the proposed introduction of about 130 parent volunteers to the building for a new hybrid plan was an apparent cause for concern. In his cancellation email addressed to the “Reading Public School Community,” Dr. Doherty announced that the developing “community volunteer” plan would no longer move forward. 

“We have decided that out of an abundance of caution, we will not be pursuing using volunteers at Reading Memorial High School,” Dr. Doherty wrote. “Our primary concern is the additional number of adults that we will be introducing into our cohorts and the impact that this could have with community spread in our schools, especially where the numbers in Reading have been on a steady increase over the last few weeks.”

The update caused frustration among many high school parents, especially those that had made arrangements to volunteer their time for the program. 

“I’m just disappointed overall,” said Debbie Hattery, an RMHS parent and volunteer for the cancelled plan. “If the administration is telling students, families, teachers, and staff that the COVID protocols are working within the school and there has yet to be an in-person transmission of COVID within the schools, then how can they be saying at the same time that an additional 20 adults following the exact same protocols would somehow make the school more vulnerable to the spread of COVID?,” she questioned. “I have great concerns for the mental and social health of all of the Reading Public School students, and feel that students need to be in-person to lessen feelings of isolation and loneliness and to help address anxiety and depression that may result from being socially isolated from friends and peers during this time.”

Mrs. O’Brien was equally disappointed upon reading Dr. Doherty’s email.

“I feel this news is very unfortunate for the students. My 16 year-old junior has had 3 days of [in-person] school in 9 months. This is no way to live or learn,” she offered.

However, in the same email, Dr. Doherty stated that the school is still attempting to “transition to the full hybrid model”, this time with the use of paid paraeducators. According to the email, 10 paraeducator positions must be filled to have enough staff to monitor satellite classrooms, and administration is “willing to look at job share positionsif it means enough new staff can be hired to implement an increased in-person hybrid model. 

As always, the ever-changing coronavirus pandemic leaves no certainties during the 2020 school year, and the question of increased in-person education for RMHS students will continue to linger until solid plans are made.