Student safety and COVID were addressed by district officials during the W-H Regional School Committee meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 22. Both have been the subject of concern among the high school’s student body in recent days, according to student representative Anna Flynn,
“We’ve had some serious issues around student safety the past couple of weeks,” said Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, noting the Monday, Dec. 6 indirect threat to schools on the South Shore posted on the social media site Snapchat. A police investigation narrowed any credible threats to Brockton and Taunton high schools.
“Whitman-Hanson was not on this alleged Snapchat,” Szymaniak said, noting he also received an email from the Brockton High principal concerning an increase of safety. “We have an outstanding relationship with our school resource officers and our police departments, and they brought a police presence to the high school, which was nice.”
He said that presence “wasn’t huge, so cruisers were not evident everywhere” – it was, rather, very discreet – but there were officers on campus as students arrived. Principal Dr. Christopher Jones was away dealing with a family issue in Connecticut and Szymaniak was home with COVID and communicating by phone with the district and public safety officials.
“Later that morning, [Assistant Superintendent George] Ferro was in charge, with [Assistant Principal David] Floeck, running a tight ship,” Szymaniak said. “Later, I got a call – and this is important – some students took a photograph off of Snapchat or Instagram, of another student who was playing airsoft (a team game similar to paintball) in the summer, and he was dressed in full cammo. They put a tag under it ‘Don’t come to school today.’”
The student in the photo had nothing to do with it, Szymaniak stressed.
The students who were involved, while very compliant and cooperative, were nonetheless “consequenced” with police and the high school office.
The juvenile justice system now has those students in process, Szymaniak said.
“The young man in the picture was being harassed a little bit and people were afraid of him,” Szymaniak said, noting a second email had to be sent out emphasizing that “he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Another national TikTok threat was known about by school officials, but police were not brought in. Szymaniak stressed that resource officers see and hear what’s going on.
“However, it’s causing some anxiety for students,” he said. A lot of students sought dismissal on Monday, Dec. 6 and he said he didn’t blame them. He met with Whitman and Hanson public safety personnel Dec. 20 to discuss what the school does already to address such situations and they will be reviewing ALICE protocols and retraining all teachers in the emergency response system during January.
Szymaniak said he will also hold a public forum as soon as the police chiefs can coordinate their calendars “somewhere between January and February break.
“Both SROs are actively going to work on a video, using our students, to show our students what should be done in a crisis,” he said. “It’s outstanding, because you can see kids in your own building doing things in a worse-case scenario.”
Age-appropriate instruction for all students K-12 will take place in January through April, as well.
“We don’t want to scare students, we just want them to know what to do in case of an emergency,” Szymaniak said. “COVID has put down a blanket of ‘Let’s deal with COVID.’ Well, these issues are happening as well, so we want to make sure our staff and students are prepared.”
Ferro said that, pre-COVID, W-H was on track to be recognized as an ALICE National School.
“In doing so, we had a contract with ALICE for professional development,” Ferro said. Every teacher would have at the beginning of the school year, three weeks to take a self-guided video program to obtain certification. The next step would be tabletop exercises and “things of that nature,” he said. The video is being updated and will be used as part of the on-boarding process for all new employees, including substitute teachers.
“We did take a stop because of COVID, and now it’s time to bring that back.”
Where COVID itself is concerned, last week 17 high school students and two staff members tested positive, along with seven Whitman Middle School Students and four staff members; two students and one staff member at Hanson Middle School; eight students and one staff member at Duval; 10 students at Conley and seven students at Indian Head schools; one student and one staff member at the preschool have tested positive for COVID.
“It’s escalating – you’re seeing it on the news,” Szymaniak said.
An Education Commissioner’s meeting Dec. 22 discussed a number of issues, including the mask requirement, which the commissioner was slated to lift Jan. 15, has not yet been changed.
“He said he’ll have some information in the next five to eight days, depending on where things go,” Szymaniak said, noting his whole family had been ill with COVID, all with different levels of symptoms. Both he and his wife and their son are fully vaccinated and his daughter had one shot when they became ill.
“The protocols we use with DESE are verbatim,” he said. “Our school nurses know more about COVID than most DPHs.”
While Szymaniak said he understands parental frustration that the rules for vaccinated vs. unvaccinated students don’t make sense, he argued to the Commissioner that schools should be allowed to test close contacts from home. The Commissioner has so far said no, as they are looking at data.
“How many students do we have here [like his son], asymptomatic, close contact with dad or mom,” he asked. “Nobody’s doing anything wrong. We’re following the protocols.”
South Shore superintendents have drafted a letter to the commissioner asking for the leeway to change testing protocols.
“Things have changed with vaccination statuses, things have changed with medications, things are now changing with quarantines,” he said. “This is a fluid situation, I’ll brief you on the fifth as we go forward.”
In the meantime, parents of students who test positive over Christmas break should contact Lead Nurse Lisa Tobin about the process for them to follow.
The flu is also going through school districts, Szymaniak said.