The School Committee on Wednesday, July 15 reviewed the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) re-opening guidelines.
“School’s about building relationships,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak said during a discussion about the start of work on the 2020-25 strategic plan. “My priority for my kids is to get them back so they feel good about school again — and then start school, and when I say start school, I mean academics.”
The plan is not precisely to “hit the ground running.”
“The opportunity, because of the pandemic, is an opportunity to rethink how we teach kids,” Szymaniak said. “Good, bad and indifferent, it’s given us an opportunity to think way outside the box, and we’ve hit some home runs and we’ve struck out on a few things, but it’s an opportunity to do some things differently.”
Szymaniak said, despite news reports about proposals elsewhere, DESE has been consistent about requiring school districts to develop three different plans for school operations in the fall. The plans are due July 31.
“We’re looking at a full opening,” Szymaniak said. “What a full opening means is yet to be determined. … I don’t know if we have the capacity in the traditional classrooms, even in the gyms and cafeterias to be able to go back full.”
If there is a budget reduction on a 1/12 budget, Szymaniak said he cannot commit to anything full time right now.
All instructional plans will also have to be bargained with the Whitman-Hanson Educational Association, with whom Szymaniak said district officials have a very good collaborative relationship. Any remote learning plans will include a memorandum of understanding on how many hours a day of active learning will be expected.
Social distancing is another concern.
DESE now recommends a social distance of six feet with a minimum of three feet apart in classrooms. That puts and average classroom at a maximum capacity of 23 pupils. If six feet apart is required it is reduced to 12 in a classroom.
“We have no classes that are running at 12 right now,” he said. “Something above 200 sections of high school classes are above 23 right now.”
He stressed school officials can look at every available space in school buildings to have classes, but “that doesn’t mean I’ll have all the teachers I need to fill those classes.”
Teachers have been asked to remove all personal property and items not school-related from classrooms.
“Think of the old 1920s classroom where all you have are rows of desks facing the teacher,” Szymaniak said about the education commissioner’s directive. “No bookshelves, no extra chairs, no extra tables. … That’s what schools going to look like, folks, based on the requirements and recommendations.”
Each school in the district has a COVID-19 building-based team looking at each school’s specific needs, Szymaniak said.
“We have to look at scenarios about how kids enter buildings, how kids get their lunch, how kids go to the bathroom, how kids wash their hands, where their lockers are going to be, if they can use lockers, if there’s transitions,” he said.
“It’s nice to hear we need toworry about the students, but we also have to worry about the staff,” said Hanson School Committee member Hilllary Kniffen, who is a teacher, noting there is not a lot of answers from DESE right now. “I don’ t see a lot of that happening.”
Kniffen also said that students could end up eating lunch in hallways under social distancing guidelines.
“I don’t know how that’s going to be beneficial to a student’s mental health, for one thing,” she said.
Hanson member Christopher Howard also cautioned against forgetting parents and their concerns.
“I am very worried, with everything that’s going on, what that will look like,” he said. “And I also look at it through the lens of an employer.”
Howard said there are a lot of employers talking about bringing people back to the office sometime after the summer, setting up what he called a “perfect storm” of educational priorities and employers’ demands on parents. He said a survey of parents — even if inconclusive — could be helpful in that area.
“This is round peg in a square hole and there’s no direction — and it’s dark outside,” Szymaniak agreed.
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro is the point person on the district-wide planning team with Szymaniak, Special Education Director Lauren Mathieson, Facilities Director Ernest Sandland, lead Nurse Lisa Tobin, teacher union representatives Kevin Kafka and Cindy McGahan, Business Director John Tuffy, Athletics Director Bob Rodgers, Elementary Cirriculum representative Jane Cox, Food Services Director Nadine Doucette, Tech Director Steve Burke, data person Kim Barnard and Karen Villaneuva is representing transportation as well as a person heading up parent and staff surveys and a School Committee member and human resources staff.
“One size does not fit all,” Whitman School Committee member Dan Cullity said of DESE guidelines, especially six-foot distancing, which he said is not doable. “Three-foot is barely going to get us to what we need to do.”
He said the district panel will be key in finding solutions to state mandates.
DESE has dedicated $292,000 to the district for technology and COVID-related expenses. State Sen. Mike Brady, D-Brockton, state Rep. Josh Cutler, D-Pembroke, and Rep. Alyson Sullivan, R-Abington, have committed $200,000 each in appropriations bills before their respective bodies.
“I don’t count those dollars until we get a check,” Szymaniak said of the bills, but noting the district already has the DESE funds in the bank.
Szymaniak also anticipates $855,000 — based on a formula of $225 per pupil — that should be coming to the district from the Plymouth County CARES grant, but it is not an appropriation, it is a reimbursement.
Szymaniak is confident the financial assistance will help the district provide a Chromebook to every student to take home if the district must go to remote learning again. He said teachers should also have a district device to use from home for instruction, as well.
South Shore school superintendents are also discussing various hybrid educational plans.
Hybrid plan options
One is a four-day-a week split-session plan for elementary students in the buildings with Fridays dedicated to virtual learning with only teachers and staff in the building. Another would have half of the elementary students in the building for a full day on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Thursdays and Fridays with Wednesdays as a virtual learning day for all students. Similar plans, with different times, are being discussed for middle school students.
“The high school has a lot of flexibility in how we want to work,” Szymaniak said. “The high school schedule is going to be the toughest to operate, or it may be the easiest.”
At first the commissioner’s guidance indicated students would be expected to stay in classrooms — especially in elementary grades — including lunch, he said in response to a question from School Committee member Christopher Scriven of Whitman. That was adjusted to permit use of the cafeteria for lunch with students staying six feet apart, but he does not see how movement between classes can be avoided in the middle and high schools.
“I anticipate teachers using the outdoor absolutely as much as they can,” Szymaniak said.
He said the main challenge for any hybrid plan is transportation. Split days would require four bus runs, based on safety limits of 24 kids on a bus. The bus company has also said they do not have enough buses for that.
“I can’t afford two bus runs,” he said, noting he would likely do another parent survey on the hybrid options.
Chorus programs might also be affected by guidelines aimed at limiting the particulates into the air.
Szymaniak said the School Committee would be asked to decide which plan to use if a hybrid model is used, because setting a school schedule is one of its charges.
“The health and safety of our children and our staff should be our priority, not the economics of our district,” he said. “To say this is a daunting task — double that, and quadruple that, not having a budget,” he said. Szymaniak said he is budgeting with the assumption that the towns will support the school budget.
If there is no budget by Aug. 1, it “might take a full-time return to school absolutely off the table, and might take hybrid off the table in some respects,” as the district would be faced with staff cuts.
Szymaniak also said he is confident the commissioner of education might support a 177-day school calendar while relaxing time-on-learning requirements.
Parents also have the opportunity to choose fully remote learning at any time during the school year, which is not the same as home schooling.