The Plympton School Committee held an interim meeting on Friday, March 12 for the purpose of reviewing the revised plan for more in-person learning time at the Dennett Elementary School. The revised plan was created using feedback from the meeting on February 22 as well as the parent survey which was distributed. Chair of the School Committee Jon Wilhelmsen thanked Dennett Principal Peter Veneto for his work creating the revised plan and the work still to be done to implement that plan. Veneto presented the plan prior to opening the meeting for discussion for both School Committee members as well as members of the public. Speakers were asked to hold their comments to three minutes.
“I completely understand that this is an emotional subject for all involved, for parents, teachers, administrators, and School Committee members and while I anticipate this will not be an issue, my expectation is that all comments, questions, and discussions this evening will be presented in a respectful and professional manner whether or not we agree with everything that is said by others,” Wilhelmsen told those remotely assembled.
Committee member Jason Fraser provided a brief legislative update pertinent to the night’s discussion prior to moving on to Veneto’s presentation. Fraser said he was happy to report that teachers were now eligible to receive their COVID vaccinations in Massachusetts. He said the development was in large part due to the work of Massachusetts’ Senate President Karen Spilka. President Biden also mandated that federally contracted pharmacies must open their vaccination programs to teachers as well. Fraser said they were still working on getting the Governor to allow local Boards of Health and Fire Departments to administer the vaccines directly to teachers themselves. Fraser said that they were also working with Representative Kathy LaNatra and Senator Michael Brady on suspending the MCAS for this year in order to prioritize a return to more in-person learning including social and emotional support. There is legislation in place at the State level to receive a waiver at the federal level for bypassing the MCAS.
Veneto then made his proposal for a full-time, in-person return to school with six feet of social distancing. The proposed start date is March 22. Veneto said that the most recent guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on March 9 stated that they expected a return to a full, in-person learning model by April 5 which includes 5 hours of structured learning time per day. Students can choose, however, to remain remote through the end of this school year though it is unlikely that option will be provided next year. As full-time learning is the default model mandated by the Commissioner, a School Committee vote was not necessary to change models. The School Committee did, however, take a vote to approve the plan as presented that night since the start date was earlier than the one proposed by the State. It was unanimously approved.
Veneto went over the parent survey results which indicated that 84.1 percent of respondents were requesting a full, in-person return at six feet of distance with 78 students requesting bus services. Nine students were requesting to remain in a remote model. Veneto said that the school will be following state guidance for remote students by live “streaming” into the classroom.
Veneto said that the schedule for the revised model will be nearly identical to the pre-pandemic one with school hours being from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily. Masks and six feet of social distancing will be maintained. Some of the changes that allowed the school to maintain six feet of distance include moving one fifth grade class to the library, another fifth grade class to the art room, and changing a reading teacher to a first grade teacher for the remainder of the school year. In order for music class to be held, it must be held at 10 feet of distance; something the administration was able to arrange. Wind instruments will not be allowed. Music teacher Carla Pecinovsky thanked parents that donated to allow the school to purchase ukuleles to be used instead.
Veneto said that one of his concerns with the changes is the number of students being dropped off and picked up and the length of the lines. Veneto said he is working with bus drivers to ensure safe protocols are followed. Regarding lunch, Veneto said, “In order to accommodate the kids in the cafeteria, we can’t do it with our current model of having three lunches, so we’re going to increase up to five lunches.” The first lunch will be served at 10:45 am and the last at 12:30 pm. Only 50 students can be accommodated in the cafeteria at once at six feet.
Veneto said that next steps will be securing a letter of commitment from families stating their preference for live or remote and whether they will need bus services for Term three. “One or two kids will make the difference if we can do this at six feet,” Veneto said. Based on survey results, he expects that it will work out. Wilhelmsen asked parents to turn that commitment around as quickly as possible.
School Committee members expressed their gratitude toward Veneto for coming up with a feasible plan that still allows students to remain six feet apart. “I don’t take sole credit for this; this was a lot of people working hard and collaborating and trying to think about what’s best for our kids,” Veneto said. Wilhelmsen said that he wanted those on the call to know that the plan that was proposed was largely the one that was pushed for by parents during the February 22 call. “I think this is right for us at this point,” he said. He also thanked the parents for participating and being part of the discussion.
A parent of a Cohort C student asked if there had been given any thought to allowing the previously fully remote students to gradually work their way into a full, in-person model beginning as hybrid. She called it “daunting” to go from full-remote to full, in-person. “I think the tricky part is that the hybrid model is basically not going to be in existence in about two and half weeks or so,” Veneto explained. He offered to have a conversation offline to see if something could be worked out. It was also confirmed that students on IEPs would still be getting all services necessary despite the model change. Several parents thanked Veneto and his staff for the new plan referring to it as “a relief.”