The Bear Press met with Hammond Principal John DiPaula to answer the questions circulating around the student community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Uma Ribeiro
Pictured above: Dr. DiPaula in front of Hammond High School, currently undergoing renovations.
With the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and the sudden transfer to an online school environment came a wave of uncertainty and heightened worries among students. Underclassmen and upperclassmen alike have been curious about the future of learning at Hammond, with questions ranging from the sports season and second semester to renovations and safety measures. To answer some of these pressing questions and curb some of the anxiety within the Hammond community, The Bear Press sat down with Principal John DiPaula through a virtual meeting in which second semester scheduling, safety measures, renovations, sports, and online learning were discussed in detail.
Dr. DiPaula began by answering questions on the possible return to in-person learning this school year.
“The Board of Education made a decision back in July that we were not going to return back to the building for instructional purposes until third quarter. That decision was made. We have exams in our current schedule, [from] January 26th to January 28th and then…[students] are off the 29th, while teachers do grading, and then February 1st is the first day back for third quarter. Now, we don’t know if that’s going to be everybody back in the building full-time, business as usual, or if it’ll be a hybrid model where we’ll have half of the students come in [at a time],” he commented.
“The board is going to put a survey out to parents… saying, ‘if we return in a hybrid model or an in-person model for third quarter, do you intend to send your children to school?” I think what we have to plan for is, let’s just say that [out of our] 60,000 students, ten percent say we don’t feel safe sending out kids to school… then we have 6,000 kids that need to get their education digitally, so we have to be able to plan for that.”
He then elaborated, explaining how that hybrid model would potentially work.
“We created a schedule where… half of the students would be in an A grouping. They would come Monday and Tuesday, and then [the other] half in the B grouping would come Thursday and Friday, and then everyone would be asynchronous on Wednesday. It would allow us to have the same group of students in the building: half of the students for two days, and then a good cleaning on Wednesday, and then the other half on Thursday and Friday and a good cleaning over the weekend, that was the plan. [February 1st] is the earliest we would be back for [in-person] instruction.”
Dr. DiPaula went into detail about how safety precautions might work if students and staff were to return to the building, and the many measures that would need to be taken to ensure those precautions were properly followed.
“A few days before we went home [due to COVID] on March 13th… we got [many] more hand sanitizing stations and we put them all over. Then we had a meeting and I met with the custodians and I talked about ensuring every restroom has soap in every dispenser and we made that a priority.”
Dr. DiPaula also mentioned the CDC guidelines of physical distancing in the classroom in regards to Hammond and Maryland schools.
“Right now we only have about 12 or 14 desks in every classroom,” he said,
“[However], the CDC is talking about 6 feet [apart between desks]. I heard another local school system talk about, ‘well, we’re going to do 3 feet between desks because that’s all that’s feasible.’”
There are many other considerations as well in order to return to the building for in-person instruction, he continues.
“Every student is required to wear a mask in the building. We have students with health conditions who maybe can’t wear a mask, we have some with health conditions that just [can’t] come to school, because they can’t be in an in-person environment [during COVID]. So, there’s going to be precautions around wearing a mask. We have to see what’s going to happen with regards to taking temperatures and we have to have a protocol in place so… students and staff know if a student doesn’t feel well… [and] we have to consider how we isolate them, how we contact the parents, what contact tracing could happen. We’re waiting to get more detail around it. I think it has to be more than just ‘we have to count on parents to take their childrens’ temperature before they send them to school,’ because some will and some won’t. Some parents are going to work before their children get out of bed in the morning, so there’s a lot out there [to consider].”
The principal also noted if students were to go back to learning in-person, the cafeteria would not be used for the entirety of the school year due to the lack of social distancing and the need to take off masks while eating. However, meals would still be served for students.
Dr. DiPaula then stated that despite risks involved with going back to in-person learning due to the Coronavirus and precautions necessary to make that happen, there are also risks involved with staying at home and online. Regarding the emotional and mental health of students, as well as risks from an educational standpoint, the principal verbalized something many Hammond students have been feeling for months.
“With regards to coming in contact with the virus, yes, it would be safest to remain virtual. However, I think there are other risks involved. I think, for students, you’re going to get the best quality instruction here in the building with staff and with each-other. I also think, for the social and emotional wellbeing of students, it’s important to engage in-person.… Rates of depression are on the rise, rates of suicide—which are important to talk about—are on the rise, because this feeling of isolation that many people have right now is real,” he said.
“So, you have to weigh the good and the bad. We know, being virtual, we have to kind of compact the curriculum and focus on the essential elements as opposed to everything. When you’re in the building, you’re really going to go deeper and you’re going to learn a little bit more. That’s not [only] Hammond High School, that’s education in general.”
Renovations at Hammond have been underway since June and construction would not stop if students returned to the building, says Dr. DiPaula. There is a plan in place for how renovations would continue if Hammond students were to return to the building, he explained,
“We’ve created a wall so there’s no way for students to get through to the construction area, and there’s no way for construction workers to get into the school area. So, it is safe so that we don’t have to mingle with workers and [risk contact]. It’s not going to get in the way, we’re not going to have major noise and disruption during the school day. Anything major will happen at night time, and the whole project has been planned so we can function properly for school during the day. They’ll continue to work, and then, as they finish each section of the building… we’ll get to occupy and use all the new areas as they’re done. As each section gets finished, we’ll move on to the next section, and section by section we’ll close off so students and construction workers can’t interact and it’ll be safe, so we’ll just keep moving with [renovations].”
Dr. DiPaula also updated The Bear Press on Hammond’s state of construction.
“With renovations, where we are right now is they’ve torn off the front of the building, they have worked a lot in the ceilings with wiring and things of that nature, they’ve put in all brand new phone systems, so new phones in every classroom, things like that. But the major thing they’re working on right now is… leveling out and working on the foundation, and then soon they’re going to lay concrete in front of the building, upon which the new cafeteria and administrative offices will sit… so, the new cafeteria will be down where the tech-ed rooms were, and then the old cafeteria will be like a new front office, and then above that—all the way across—will be a line of classrooms on the second floor.”
Hammond athletes have shared their curiosity regarding how the sports season could work. Dr. DiPaula commented on how sports could potentially operate under Coronavirus guidelines.
“The state of Maryland pushed for us to return to sports [around] the beginning of November. However, almost every school system in the state doesn’t really feel comfortable with that at this point in time. I think what we’re pursuing is starting sports as early as the beginning of December, so sports might start before we even return [to the building]. Now, there have been no decisions made, but we might not have fans in the stands. We might have practice, we would have three abbreviated seasons, and then we might not be able to have fans in the stands for the games… sometimes a football game or a basketball game might have a thousand, two thousand people that come to it…[and] usually, field hockey, volleyball, baseball, track, there will be a few, but [football and basketball] draw a lot of people.”
The Bear Press then moved on to questions regarding online learning and how the methods of online instruction might expand further. Some online tools have been used in classes thus far in an attempt to re-create an in-person learning experience and interactive environment.
“We decided [to have] everybody start off trying to use Pear Deck, because that’s a way every student can respond and you can see their feedback, and you can give them feedback so teachers can understand who’s learning and who’s not. A teacher in a classroom can give you a warm-up or can give you a one-question assessment… and as you’re working, they’re walking up and down the aisles and they can see [who] understands or doesn’t understand, so [Pear Deck] is a way they can do that [digitally]. There’s a lot of other tools we’re going to institute over time, but [it needs to be done in a way that is] not… confusing to students and staff. [Rather], it’s about what tools can we implement now that will help us, because really at the end of the day, in regards to the content and the skills of what you’re learning, the technology is just a means to deliver the instruction. Google Meet should be coming out with breakout rooms… which will be good in world languages and different areas to practice speaking and listening as well as to… allow everyone [in a class] an opportunity to speak and share their ideas and thoughts and talk back and forth. It’s more beneficial, so that’s a direction we’re going [as well].”
The Bear Press inquired about possible permanent changes that could come from online learning on such a mass scale. Dr. DiPaula answered that the online platform could be used on days of inclement weather. Additionally, online school could allow teachers to think about how they use class time and what can be done asynchronously in the future.
“As far as safety protocol on the day-to-day, just the nature of being in a high school, being in a community where people are close and they care about each other… how many times a day do you shake hands or hug somebody? It’s just normal. But I wonder, if we go back to school, does it change for a little while and then all of a sudden we’re back to normal? Instructionally speaking, if every student now has a laptop that they’ve been issued—which is where we are now—maybe snow days go away [in the future] or maybe if there’s an impending storm coming along, [online class could be used]. More teachers could have students watching videos the night before to prepare for a discussion the next day. Why take viable class time when we’re together watching a video or doing something you can do on your own? So, I think as [teachers] are thinking about planning, they’re thinking, ‘what is our synchronous time together going to look like, and then what am I going to have [students] do during this asynchronous time?’ I think that will make our time together more valuable if we plan appropriately.”
Pictured above: Dr. DiPaula at his work-space at Hammond