School Committee members debated the merits of opening school doors in September before voting in support of the School District’s hybrid reopening plan.
“Nobody’s going to be happy today,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak. “Some people will be thrilled. Some people will be really upset. Some people will say, ‘Oh, great, that’s what they decided.’”
Some School Committee members initially favored a more cautious approach.
“My main concern is really taking more of a conservative and cautious approach with the hybrid plan itself, really almost slowing down the pace,” said School Committee member Dawn Byers. Even limiting the number of students in the building at one time to half the student population worries her a bit, leading her to wonder if the district could create a “hybrid of a hybrid” by phasing in the district’s plan.
“I think of this as a marathon from September to June, not necessarily ‘We’ve got to do all of this in September,’” she said.
“We can pivot on anything,” Szymaniak said. “I know other districts are talking the same thing as a slower roll-in [but] I am concerned that, if we have a spike by October, and we never get in, we’re not getting in.”
Speaking as the former high school principal, Szymaniak said it is amazing how the building “opens up” each June after the senior class graduates. The hybrid approach would only bring half the student body in at one time.
“[Principal Dr. Christopher] Jones is going to have a structure in place to keep them apart,” Szymaniak said. “I believe it will be safe in this building.”
But Szymaniak said a longer phase-in is an option for the School Committee. He is trying to balance educational progress with student safety and parent schedules.
He also said the smaller class sizes possible with the divided student cohort days may provide some opportunities to improve teaching practices.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said the proposal as presented gives teachers time to assess how students will react to the plan.
The plan still could pivot to a regular school program by the second semester if things go well, according to Szymaniak. Ferro added that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will also be looking at metrics of how a community is faring with coronavirus.
WHEA representative Kevin Kavka said that — while the union will work with school leadership on hours, wages and conditions no matter what plan is adopted — there is a great deal of anxiety among teachers.
“The general trend is, ‘We’ll make this work, we want to do what’s best for kids,’” he said about a survey of teachers. “But there’s certainly concerns over safety.”
He said Szymaniak and Ferro’s presentation addressed some of those concerns.
School Committee member Fred Small said that, in speaking with teachers in his family, they stressed to him how important it is for teachers to make a connection with their students.
In other business, Szymaniak presented a policy on mask wearing in which teachers wear masks all the time and students in kindergarten through grade 12 also wear masks.
“The best barrier for this virus is masks,” he said. “If it’s going to make our kids feel safe and our teachers feel safe, I’d like to implement that.”
He said there will be students who can’t wear a mask, but stressed there is a difference between a can’t and a won’t. Students who have documented medical reasons why they can’t wear a mask will be accommodated.
The School Committee also voted to approve an interim general policy on COVID-related issues from the state that permits Szymaniak to make decisions outside of going to a full approval process if COVID issues require it.