Cohort assignments for the coming school year were expected to be released on Friday, Aug. 28, according to Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, as administrators continue to work toward the Sept. 15 first day of school’s hybrid instruction model.
“Depending on what happens tomorrow with the staff coming back and the fires we’re putting out,” an FAQ will be posted as soon as possible, Szymaniak said during the Wednesday, Aug. 26 School Committee meeting.
One issue still up in the air is how hot days, that could still occur in early September, would affect the school schedule as not all school buildings have adequate air-conditioning. Szymaniak said snow days will not be called this winter — instead instruction will simply pivot to remote learning — but he had not yet heard guidance on “heat days” from the commissioner of education. A blizzard that knocks out power for all or large parts of the school district would be the exception to that plan.
School Committee member Fred Small said Comcast is continuing its essentials program at $9.95 per month. Originally offered to new customers for two weeks of high-speed internet at home during the pandemic, the program is aimed at assisting low-income households.
Assistant Superintendent of Schools George Ferro said families can be sponsored within the essentials program, if needed. Families should contact building principals if they need that assistance.
“If your WiFi fails because there is a power outage in a snowstorm, or if someone hits a tree and you lose your power, there will be compassion on the part of teachers K-12 to say, ‘Hey, look, don’t worry about that,’” Szymaniak said.
Szymaniak also sought guidance from the School Committee on a recommendation from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that would have local school districts accommodate children of teachers who reside in town, but teach in other districts, to attend schools four days a week. The children would be placed in a supervised setting in a library or other setting.
The committee authorized a survey of resident teachers and district staff on the matter before making a decision on participation.
Szymaniak said complying is based on the capacity of a school district, and not all have the space.
“Everything is throwing the decisions back to the local level, which I appreciate at times,” he said. “But, also, it’s been a challenge and I don’t want to divide our community.”
School Committee member Hillary Kniffen, who is a teacher, said she was concerned about the optics of teachers appearing to receive special privileges.
“It’s shame on the commissioner for putting districts in this position,” she said. “Child care is hard for everyone. It’s a hybrid model and nothing, nothing is good for anybody in this.”
Small suggested residents might wonder why similar arrangements were not made for public safety workers. Federal policy includes teachers as essential workers, but the state does not right now, according to Szymaniak.
Since the school district is looking at school reopening from a compassionate, humane aspect, perhaps some of the emails the district has been receiving are OK, Ferro said.
“Maybe some of the problems we’re experiencing are OK because everybody’s experiencing them differently now,” Ferro said before going over the district’s schedule for a hybrid remote learning program for elementary, middle and high school students.
The Ingenuity program includes concept coaching that connects with a virtual tutor immediately.
“It’s different, but it’s exciting — it could be very cool,” he said. “Now, there are people out there saying I’m all wet, which is fine because that’s what everybody gets to do, they get to have their own opinion.”
Szymaniak reported that more than 100 teachers received reduction in force (RIF) letters in May. The district also no longer has a human resources department, which had been cut in a previous budget year and the work distributed between about a half-dozen people on the Central Office staff. Adding to that issue are people who can’t come back to school for medical reasons because of the coronavirus.
Szymaniak said he has 14 teachers, five paraprofessionals and one duty aide who can’t return because of a valid medical issue.
“Luckily, we were able to find roles for them in district and keep them off extended [Family Medical Leave Act] leaves, keeping them working,” he said.
“Teachers have gone above and beyond this summer to prepare for virtual learning,” Szymaniak said, noting that building principals have also worked long hours over the summer to accommodate social distancing into school routines. Google will be the instructional platform, not Zoom or another option.
While buildings aren’t school-ready yet, he lauded the facilities department for the work they have been doing over the summer to see that buildings were cleaned and will be ready for the first day of school.
Szymaniak also thanked the public for supporting the schools both financially and in spirit. There are 396 students who will be going to fully-remote learning, which took some time to verify and adjust cohort assignments and transportation issues.
Virtual open houses for schools are being planned.
“The reason we can’t have a live open house is I can’t really control the community at this point,” Szymaniak said.
At lunchtime, there will be no special orders at the lunch line — it will all be grab-and-go with a cell phone application being made available for parents or high school students to use for ordering lunch.
Before and after school care will also be available at the elementary schools provided by the YMCA, including remote assistance for parents who require it.
There are about 30 more families opting for home schooling, bringing the number to around 70, Ferro reported. Szymaniak added that those families can change their mind, but should notify the district by mid-October in order to give time for their children to be added to a cohort in time for the second quarter to begin in early November.
The committee voted to accept a state policy requiring face masks in schools.