Deciding how to instruct students at home — and salvaging what is left of the milestones for the Class of 2020 when, and if, school returns — is the challenge facing school superintendents right now.
Gov. Charlie Baker and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced last week that schools would not reopen before May 4.
“So far, we’ve been doing a deep-clean in the district, which will be completed on April 4, the original return date from the closure,” W-H Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak told the School Committee on Wednesday, March 25. Conley, Indian Head, Hanson Middle and Whitman Middle schools have been cleaned and closed down, with Duval and the High School set to be cleaned and shuttered by April 4. Access will be limited to Facilities Department personnel after each school is closed.
The cleaning cost the district $100,000, which Szymaniak expects may have to come from the district’s excess and deficiency account, which is intended for emergency expenses. [See budget story, this page]
District employees are being paid as if they are working through April 7, but Szymaniak said that could change for come employees depending on DESE’s directive. He stressed that he is following teachers and the inventive ways the are serving students at home through several social media pages.
“Our teachers are really working diligently at home, I see them, what they’re doing, on social media,” he said. “I’m seeing a lot of engagement with kids — creative ideas.”
Teachers are leaning on the project-based learning that DESE has been advocating.
School Committee member Dan Cullity asked how the closure will affect student learning, to which Szymaniak replied that he was looking for direction from DESE, since the original instructions on March 13 was for enrichment and connection with students, but no new learning or grading through April 7.
Remote learning recommendations, released by DESE [doe.mass.edu] on March 25, include four guiding principals: the safety and well-being of students and staff is the top priority; the COVID-19 crisis disproportionately affects vulnerable students; the need to maintain connections between students and staff is paramount.; and that remote learning is not synonymous with online learning.
“I have MCAS, I have graduation still on the table,” Szymaniak said. “That hasn’t been voted out by the Legislature yet.”
Szymaniak said the district still plans on holding a graduation ceremony and work out proms and other end-of-the-year activities so that students now struggling at home have something to look forward to when and if school is returns to session.
“Whenever it is, we’re going to hold a graduation ceremony,” he said. “I don’t know what the graduation ceremony will look like if we still can’t meet with more than 25 people in a room … but we’re going to figure it our for those kids because we need positive and we need something to look forward to.”
South Shore Tech Superintendent-Director Dr. Thomas J. Hickey also expressed the hope that schools would be able to lift the restrictions on size of gatherings.
“Our prom is late this year,” Hickey said. “It just happens to be in late May within a week of graduation. … All of those signature senior events are just all up in the air.”
For most schools, a May 4 return to school is within two weeks of the slated graduation date, Hickey added.
Eighth-grade trip cancellations were due to decisions made by national tour companies, Szymaniak stressed.
Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley’s revised guidance on remote learning is focusing on what is required vs. what is voluntary, or enrichment learning projects.
“What I think is going to become apparent by the middle of next week, is you will probably begin to see school districts come out with revised guidance and expectations on what they want kids to actually do,” Hickey said on Saturday. “I kids … or families think right now that this logging in and doing work remotely is voluntary, is that going to change?”
The teachers’ unions and school committee associations have both signed off on documents stating that while kids’ mental heath and safety are paramount, there is also a need to figure out ways at the local level concerning what remote learning looks like, Hickey said.
“It’s an important conversation, but it is complicated in terms of you’ve got to design a system … we’ve just got to make accomodations for families,” he said. “It’s one thing to say you’ve got a functioning computer at home, but if you’ve got three kids all of whom need to log in, now the question is are there enough devices?”
Hickey said educators are creating a new normal.
“As of right now, [the W-H technology department] has fielded 4,000 calls to their help desk since we went out of school — for service, for Chromebooks, for kids, with parents asking for help and with teachers asking for help,” Szymaniak said. There have been 150 requests for student Chromebooks, which he was issuing Friday, March 27.
The process for that involved a “drive-by pickup” in the high school’s bus loop to ensure social distancing for community members and staff.
Hickey said SST, too, is loaning out devices for students to use at home when the need arises.
The next step is to check in with administrators and teachers to determine that students are logging in or contacting teachers. There is a plan for SST guidance staff to reach out to families if there is a concern.
“So we just have a sense for how everybody is doing, that’s really the foundation to it all.” Hickey said of the plans.
Szymaniak said the social-emotional well-being of students and their parents is paramount at this point.
Pre-K, kindergarten tuition
The Committee approved Szymaniak’s recommendation to suspend pre-K and kindergarten tuition payments for full-day pupils, and allocate for some prorated reimbursements for the time students are out, based on the closures since March 16. Three of those days are being calculated as snow days. The district is not paying for transportation during the closure.
“I don’t necessarily feel it’s equitable for parents to be paying for service for preschool or kindergarten when their teachers aren’t there,” Szymaniak said. “That will directly affect our budget, and I’m crossing my fingers that we wouldn’t have to go to excess and deficiency to balance our budget because we will be saving some money in either transportation or utilities … but that’s unknown to me.”
Additionally, through a new partnership between DESE and WGBH, educational resources will be posted on the department’s website, and middle and high school students can access WGBH and WGBY educational programming on WGBH and WGBY on the WORLD channel from noon to 5 p.m.
“Food service has been outstanding over the past two weeks,” he said. “We are delivering our meals [via deliveries of boxes of food to the homes of students on free and reduced lunch plans] at a two-week interval.” There are 46 families — with a total of 93 students among them — receiving that assistance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved DESE’s request to waive the requirement that school meal sites must be located in areas where at least 50 percent of school lunch program participants are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. Therefore, all school districts that are distributing meals during school closures related to COVID-19 and are focusing the distribution of these meals to children and teens in need of them are now eligible for USDA reimbursement. Further details will be released later this week.
Teachers have been directed to contact their students to maintain connection and communicate enrichment activities for the students to do at home. Speaking before Riley’s March 26 directives, Szymaniak anticipated more directives for teachers and parents.
“I’m very wary of overwhelming an already-overwhelmed household,” said Szymaniak, who has two elementary-grade children at home himself. “Speaking from experience, this is new. … My wife and I are educators and we’re both still struggling to get them on a routine of school work and academics.”
He said he could only imagine how other parents, working from home, or who have lost their job are trying to accomplish that task with material that may be new to their children.
“I have a concern about equity as far as delivery of services to our special education students and for our ELL (English Language Learner) students [are concerned],” he said, asking for patience from parents as teachers and administrators confront a new situation.
Hickey also noted students with IEPs are being given particular attention at his school, as well. He said paraprofessionals, as well as staff teachers, will be deployed to support students who need that extra assistance or direct instruction.
Among the issues they are looking at is the potential strain on device accessibility of parents and more than one child trying to use computers at home.
“If students are in that situation, they can still get a device from us,” Szymaniak said.