Schools look to a possible ‘post holiday break’ as US coronavirus deaths top 300,000


Quinn Suomala

School has changed for students who must follow a host of rules to keep each other safe.

Abyssinia Haile, Features Editor

As Christmas approaches, HWRSD administrators are faced with a serious challenge this holiday season: How will students and staff members be able to return to school without bringing the Coronavirus with them?

The question comes after Superintendent Albert Ganem informed families in a letter on November 20 that all HWRSD facilities would be closed again to students following several outbreaks linked to the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Contact tracing numbers are high,” Ganem said. “Closing the HWRSD is out of an abundance of caution and done with the expert guidance of the local health officials to minimize exposure and contain the spread.”

Since Labor Day, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health reports that coronavirus cases are up more than 300% and hospitalizations are up nearly 200%. Numbers continue to trend upwards as the White House task force says that daily COVID-19 cases hit an all-time high early last Monday.

At Minnechaug, Principal Steve Hale says that he and the MRHS administration are doing their best to keep the school open to students. 

“We’re glad that students are returning and wish to keep it like that,” said Hale. “We just need to continue to talk to our teachers, our staff, and families to see how we can improve.”

When asked about a possible “post-holiday break” going into the new year, Hale says that as far as he knows the district has no intentions of returning Minnechaug to a remote learning model any time soon. However, he and other administrators continue to remind students to be wary of their decisions outside of school.

“In school, we know the desks are 6 feet apart, everyone is wearing masks, and hand sanitizer is everywhere,” Hale said. “When students do not continue to follow these recommendations outside of school and attend large gatherings, they put themselves, their families, and the school community at risk.”

Elsewhere in the community, districts such as East Longmeadow decided to move to a fully remote learning model, while others such as West Springfield’s are staying open to students despite the surge in COVID-19 spread.

Meanwhile, Minnechaug students and teachers have “mixed feelings” on hybrid learning

The coronavirus-affected school year has brought on new challenges for students, teachers, and administrators that could be worsened as a result of a potential “remote only” learning environment.

The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District resumed classes following an extended summer break earlier last September. Since then, some students have returned to classrooms, others sticking to the comfort of their homes to attend school.

About 85% of students had opted for a combination of virtual and in-person classes, now given the name “hybrid learning”, while 15% have been relying on virtual classes instead.

Initially, families were “positive and eager for students to return to some level of normalcy by coming back to school,” according to Hale. Now, students and teachers remain fearful of contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to others.

Siena Dansereau, 15, says that she feels “pressured” to take as much preventative action as possible to protect herself from the novel virus.

“I have a larger family with younger sisters,” she began. “Living in a small house doesn’t make it any better. If I get it, it would spread quickly throughout my house.”

However, Serina Chan, a cohort D (fully remote) student argues that virtual learning isn’t any better than going in-person.

“You’re not as motivated to do your work at home,” she said. “It’s just the same thing over and over again but with new work.”

Hale said that the staff and administration at Minnechaug have had their “fair share” of struggles too.

“The biggest challenge is that teachers are having to create content in a digital way where they did not necessarily have to do prior to the pandemic,” says Hale. “If you think about a teacher who maybe has been at Minnechaug for 15 years and has taught most of the same classes, they’ve had to completely flip their curriculum.”

An example of this is Tom Petzold, a teacher at Minnechaug, who has had to “pivot” his classes to meet the CDC’s guidelines for school.

The MRHS administration determined last summer that some classes could not be taken by fully remote students, including Petzold’s wood tech class. Instead, cohorts A, B, and C students meet in-person to perform hands-on activities at school, saving research and “book-work” for home.

“I’m trying to find a balance,” said Petzold. “I do know that when they are in person, they couldn’t be happier and it’s great to see them working.”