The Whitman-Hanson Regional and South Shore Technical school districts have joined schools across the state suspending classes for three weeks, through Tuesday, April 7 — and as long as a month in some places — to help stem the progress of the coronavirus.
Town halls, libraries, senior centers and any activities that could attract more than 25 people are canceled or rescheduled in light of the state of emergency declared by Gov. Charlie Baker.
Public meetings in both Whitman and Hanson must be “attended” remotely by residents — and, in Hanson, via telephone link by all Selectmen for the duration of emergencies declared in both towns, effective Monday, March 16.
Town meetings will be rescheduled to June 15, but Hanson plans to keep the scheduled date of the Town Election as Saturday, May 16. Selectmen approved the refunding of down payments for planned events canceled at Hanson’s Camp Kiwanee.
Hanson Food Pantry will remain open, but will admit only one client at a time with social distance guidelines enforced, and chairs will be cleaned between clients. Residents have been asked to use food pantry services only in the event of clear need.
“Public meetings will be broadcast on cable access, either live or the next day on YouTube,” Town Administrator Frank Lynam stated in a reverse 911 call Monday.
“You’ll notice we are all socially distanced,” said Hanson Selectmen Chairman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett, as she convened the Tuesday, March 17 meeting, attended in person by only herself, Selectman Matt Dyer, Town Administrator John Stanbrook, Administrative Assistant Greer Getzen, Police Chief Michael Miksch, Health Agent Gil Amado, Health Board Chairman Arlene Dias and IT Director Ryan McGonigle — all at seated at CDC-recommended intervals. Selectmen Wes Blauss, Jim Hickey and Kenny Mitchell, Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., and Town Counsel Jay Talerman attended remotely via telephone link.
“Tonight’s meeting will probably be the last meeting where we will see each other in person because we take this seriously and we want to make sure we’re leading by example and doing the right thing,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “We thought it was important to meet tonight, because we hadn’t yet worked out the logistics on the teleconferencing — and time will tell if we actually have worked them out, but we are going to give it our level best.”
Teleconference meetings will be recorded and posted on the town website with videoconference coverage available only for land-use board hearings where hearings can’t be delayed, where maps and other documents need to be viewable, FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Lynam said that, while all town employees were still working, admittance to buildings will be by appointment only. The telephone number for all town departments is 781-447-7600.
Hanson town and school fields have also been closed to any organized sports or activities and will remain closed as long as the schools are closed. Whitman fields and recreational areas are closed to the public until further notice. Updates are available on town websites whitman-ma.gov and hanson-ma.gov. Municipal bills may be paid online or by check or money order deposited in drop-boxes at the town halls.
“We regret that these limitations are being established, but we are doing so to reduce the exposure to the [coronavirus] to the public and it’s town employees,” Lynam said in his message.
Restaurants are limited to carry-out or drive-through food business only.
“I think people shine in moments like this,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said. “You really see people’s true colors, and we’ve got a truly dedicated group of employees here in Town Hall, Fire, Police, Highway, Water — they’re all stepping up.”
Like Lynam, FitzGerald-Kemmett stressed some of the measures put in place with the state of emergency are for the protection of town employees as well as the public.
Materials can be taken out from the library by calling ahead. Staff will wipe down books and other media and bring it out to residents.
“There will be no person-to-person contact and they will be taking precautionary measures,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Miksch said if the public finds police officers to be a little less friendly or are hesitant to roll down a window to talk, there is a reason for that.
“We have to stress that we’re trying to do our best to make sure the officers stay safe as well,” he said. “I hate to limit people from coming to the police station, but again, unless they physically have to be there, we don’t want them there.”
Firearms ID renewals are being handled online as much as possible.
W-H Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak told the School Committee at its Thursday, March 12 meeting that a conference call for Commissioner of Education Jeff Riley and superintendents around the state had been scheduled Friday, March 13 to discuss the decision.
Regardless of the decision, Szymaniak was willing to take parental concerns into consideration had the decision been made to keep schools opwn. [See pages 4, 5].
“I would like to tell the School Committee and the community, if [parents] feel that school is in session and you would like to keep your child home, you may,” he said. “We are looking at ways … for online learning in the event of that.”
In light of the emergency, the unexcused absences policy has been waived. Students on free and reduced lunch, will be provided for.
“Some of our students get breakfast, lunch and dinner here,” Szymaniak said. “We have to come up with a contingency plan to make sure our students are fed.” Services to students on individualized education plans (IEPs) must also be served according to their plans, he said.
There had been no cases of presumptive or real cases of coronavirus in the W-H community, Szymaniak stressed on March 12. He has been in communication via conference call with both town administrators and boards of health and Szymaniak had already canceled all field trips through Friday, March 20.
Before the decision to close the schools for two weeks, he said the Conley and Duval schools were slated for cleaning over the weekend, which would have cost $8,000 for the work and buses were being cleaned after every run.
MCAS exams are “on the table,” Szymaniak said. “There’s no agenda for this, there might be a closure, I’m not really sure.”
By Friday afternoon, the decision to close the schools for two weeks had been made.
SST Superintendent-Director Thomas Hickey also said his school is out for two weeks, encouraging students to stay engaged in learning through reading and enrichment activities. School officials will re-evaluate the situation at the end of two weeks before making a decision on how to proceed from there.
Teachers will use online resources and work planned based on what they have planned for students to do when school does return, Hickey said. Social-emotional outreach services will also be available to families from school counselors whiles school is out.
“It can be very difficult to ensure equity in lesson plans,” Hickey said of the varying resources students have at home. “Still anything is better than nothing.”
While school is out, few staff will be in the building other than custodians who will increasing the flu-season cleaning protocols already in place since December.
Hickey is also looking to technology platforms such as GoogleVoice to limit the number of staff in the building further — forwarding any incoming calls to their homes.
“One of the things that we’re trying to do is to make sure that there’s an opportunity to continue learning,” said W-H Assistant Superintendent George Ferro. “We have to take into account many different things.”
Access to the Internet for devices is one of those. While 93.46 percent of parents have such access.
“When you look at that, that is not everybody,” Ferro said. Chromebooks owned by the school district are set up for the school network, and some could be made available if parents contact the district.
“We also have to come up with the paper packet for those who do not have access,” he said.
“I would commend your leadership and thoughtfulness in what are certainly extraordinary times,” said Committee member Christopher Howard.
“You guys are dealing with a lot of crazy stuff all at once,” Small said.
School Committee member Fred Small noted the Whitman Public Library has Verizon hot spots. Hanson Library Trustees Chairman Corrine Cofardo said they have many patrons who drive to the Hanson Library to use the Internet from their cars.
“There’s 40 parking spaces there,” she said.
Szymaniak asked for patience from the community as the coronavirus is an “evolving situation.”
“This is a first time for all of us,” he said, noting MCAS and graduation implications have to be taken into consideration.
Hanson Selectmen also discussed the situation at the board’s Tuesday, March 17 meeting with Police Chief Michael Miksch, Fire Chief Jerome Thompson Jr., and Health Agent Gil Amado. [See story, this page]
Selectmen have discussed using their oversight of the W-H playing fields on Hanson property to halt all sports play until further notice.
Hickey noted in the board’s special meeting Thursday, March 12 that the NBA, NHL as well as major league soccer, MLB and the NFL have suspended and/or delayed their regular seasons, the NCAA basketball tournament — as well as state high school basketball championship games — have been cancelled and the Boston Marathon was rescheduled to Sept.14.
“I have seen people posting of social media that they’re concerned and don’t know what to do,” said FitzGerald-Kemmett, who had just canceled the St. Patrick’s Day fundraising dinner slated for Saturday, March 14 to support the Hanson Food Pantry. “There are a bunch of elderly people who volunteer at the food pantry and I can’t have that happening, I don’t want to be responsible for harming people.”
Mitchell also suggested that the swearing in of two new police officers and recognition of Sgt. Eugene Andrews, who is retiring, be postponed. The new officers would be asked to get sworn in by Town Clerk Beth Sloan.
“Then we can do the family gathering … at a later date,” Mitchell said. “We shouldn’t have a room full of people.”