The opening of the 2021-22 school year on Wednesday, Sept. 1 had “no real issues,” Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak reported to the School Committee on Wednesday, Sept. 15.
“There were lots of happy eyes,” he said. “You couldn’t see smiles, but, with kids, you could tell how excited they were to be in school, same with teachers.”
While there were “a couple hiccups” with transportation, nothing critical as far as opening, he said.
Szymaniak also touched on the COVID protocol, it’s effect on the first days of the school year and “where we’re at right now.”
Schools throughout the state are under a mask mandate until Oct. 1, depending on a vaccine percentage of 80 percent.
“It’s frustrating for me, and reporting to the committee, that’s the extent of the information that I have to share with you about the vaccine mandate and what 80 percent is,” he said. “There are a lot of us guessing, to say is it by school? By district? Is it by teachers? Is it by community? We don’t have that information.”
Hanson figures put 38 percent of the town’s 12-to-15-year-olds vaccinated and 61 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds. In Whitman, 47 percent of 12-to-15-year-olds and 58 percent of 16-to-19-year-olds are fully vaccinated.
Both Whitman and Hanson have encouraged people to get vaccinated. A vaccine for children under age 12 is supposed to become available sometime in October, but what that exactly means and where it can be dispensed has not been provided.
“If the commissioner [of education] holds true to 80 percent, we’re not taking the masks off at this point,” Szymaniak said.
“I’m extremely frustrated because I don’t have any information to share with the community,” he said.
He said he has been asked by residents if the mandate is linked to school funding. Without directly addressing that, he said 50 percent of school funding comes from the state and it is important to follow the COVID mandates.
Szymaniak said the School District is not seeing transmissions between kids at the schools. But there is an increase in the COVID positivity rate in both communities.
Mass. DPH numbers indicate that there have been two positive cases at the high school since Sept. 1, Whitman Middle School had three, Hanson Middle School has had four cases. Six other students in Hanson tested positive before the start of school.
Duval Elementary had three positive cases since Sept.1, Indian Head and Conley had none and the preschool had two.
Szymaniak also spoke about COVID testing.
“We were ready to go with tests Day One, and we didn’t have them,” he said. “They came in last week.”
The training that Lead Nurse Lisa Tobin was supposed to attend was canceled, so she is trying to self-train virtually.
He said the “Test and Stay” program — which administers five tests in the nurse’s office over five consecutive days — only tests students if they are in close contact within school.
“If you play Pop Warner [football] and come to school, I can’t test you,” Szymaniak said, noting the confusion surrounding the Test and Stay program.
He said mask protocol is being adhered to without incident and, the few situations at the high school have involved the need to remind students to pull the mask up over their noses.
Masks are provided to students that need them.
A severe shortage of bus drivers, limit the available buses for sports.
“We’re lucky we’re getting bus drivers to drive our kids to school,” Szymaniak said. “After school [activities] and field trips are going to be severely limited by the amount of drivers that are there.”
More parents are either opting to homeschool or take advantage of school choice, although the number is down from last year’s pandemic.
Compared to 2019, when there were 35 homeschool pupils and 58 school choice students coming into the district. In 2020-21, during the peak of the pandemic, there were 93 homeschool students and 50 school choice; In 2021-22 Szymaniak is up to 65 homeschooled and 50 school choice students coming in and 36 going out.
“We’re still choicing kids in from all over the South Shore, which is a good thing,” he said. “[Students going to other school districts] is something we’re going to dig in deeper.”
He noted that enrollment is decreasing across the district with Hanson enrollment leveling off at about 100 students per grade below grade five. In Whitman, it seems to level off at grade six at between 150 and 160 per grade.
“This committee has worked extremely hard and diligently to try to lower class size in the district,” Szymaniak said. “I’m pleased that, in our elementary schools we have some really good balance, especially in our earlier grades.”
At Duval, top class sizes range from 16-18, Indian Head is around 20-23. The middle schools average class sizes is about 20 and the high school is around 20, except for foreign languages, which average close to 30.
John Galvin, of High Street in Whitman, expressed concern about a “significant” transfer of $3.7 million in line item transfers voted at the previous School Committee meeting to balance the fiscal 2021 budget.
“Last year, at this time, you also took a similar vote [of $3.1 million] … to balance the budget of fiscal year ’20,” he said. “This year, $3.7 million is over 6 percent of the budget, so that means that, at the end of the year, this committee re-appropriated 6 percent of the budget.”
Glavin said he sent an analysis comparing the two transfers to the committee and administration.
“What I found was simply mind-bending,” Galvin said. “The amount of line items in one year that had a significant deficit, the next year had a significant overage. Some of the line items were $1 million from one year to the other.”
He said a new subcommittee on budgets is forming and the hiring of a new business manager is still ahead, but he said he hopes it is time the committee really takes a look at how they prepare the budget, “starting from the gound up.”