The Plympton School Committee met virtually for one final time this calendar year on Monday, Dec. 14.
During the legislative update, committee member Jason Fraser spoke out against Governor Baker’s active solicitation of public schools to return to full, in-person learning during his Nov. 6 press conference. At the time, Baker said that communities in the gray, green, and yellow COVID risk categories were expected to have students learning in-person while communities in the red were being encouraged to follow a hybrid model rather than a full remote one. There was no clear answer as to whether districts that didn’t comply with state guidance would be penalized in some way.
Fraser said that he wrote a personal letter in early November as an individual member of a school committee expressing his concern over Baker’s remarks. Likewise, he said a similar letter was sent more recently as a member of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees expressing appreciation for all Governor Baker has done during the pandemic but urging him to step back his push for full, in-person learning. “His rhetoric is starting to be off-putting to members of our public-school community,” Fraser explained. He continued, “We do appreciate everything that the governor has done but we want him to leave us alone and trust us to do our job and do what’s best for our community.”
As she has done at all of the most recent school committee meetings across Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton, Superintendent Jill Proulx reiterated the state’s guidelines that inhibit the feasibility of a return to full, in-person learning. Included amongst those guidelines are the required 3 feet of social distancing on buses as well as the required 6 feet of social distancing required during lunch. Additionally, Dennett Elementary School has been maintaining 6 feet of distancing in their classrooms in accordance with CDC recommendations. The funds and space required to accommodate all students while still adhering to the necessary restrictions are prohibitive.
Plympton School Committee Chair Jon Wilhelmsen attributed the lack of school transmission and relatively few cases across the district to all the safety protocols that are currently in place. As of Monday’s meeting there have been 51 cumulative cases across all schools in the district. He also spoke out against the expectation that there be a uniform approach taken across the entire state as some schools are better equipped to accommodate students for in-person learning.
President of the Teacher’s Association Ann Walker told the Committee, “tensions are high; everybody is nervous… Plympton has done well so far but it feels like it’s closing in.” She also noted that it can be hard to stay 3 feet from young children let alone 6. Wilhelmsen thanked the teachers and administration for their hard work. He also thanked the building staff “for keeping the building as clean and as safe as we can.” “We will get to the other side of this. Likely we will all be tired, but stronger because of it,” Wilhelmsen said.
Dennett Elementary School Principal Peter Veneto told the Committee that they have entered the second trimester. Veneto told the Committee that he was “surprised we got this far.” He attributed the success to the families and staff at the Dennett. Families were recently given the opportunity to switch learning models from hybrid to remote or remote to hybrid. Only a small handful of families requested changes and all requests were accommodated.
Veneto said that there are currently 89 students in Cohort A and 80 students in Cohort B. Cohorts A and B alternate days in the building with one set of students attending in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays and another set attending in-person on Thursdays and Fridays. Cohort C, or the students who elected to be fully remote, currently has an enrollment of 23. Cohort D which includes the highest needs learners who are prioritized for more in-person days stands at 18 students. Veneto said that on any given day there are roughly 100 students in the building.
Finally, Veneto told the Committee that fourth grade teacher Bea Reynolds has decided to begin her retirement in January. Veneto called her an “institution in town” and noted what a tremendous loss it would be for the school. Current math interventionist Maria Barlow will replace her.
In another legislative update, Fraser said that the Massachusetts Association of School Committees delegate assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution asking that the MCAS be cancelled for this year as well as the next three years. They are currently working with the appropriate parties in Washington D.C. to prepare legislation for the incoming Secretary of Education that will allow states to make the determination regarding testing. From there, Fraser said they will then begin to work with Beacon Hill and DESE to assure that they are eliminated this year.
Wilhelmsen told the Committee that he had recently been brought into conversations that were being held at the town level regarding the possibility of installing solar panels on the roofs of municipal buildings. Various buildings in town were suggested including the roof at the Dennett, which has properties making it ideal for such an installation. The condition of most of the Dennett roof, however, is a problem. According to Wilhelmsen they need “to rectify that hodgepodge of materials that is up there.”
In lieu of the entire roof, two spots are being investigated as possible locations for solar panels at the school. Those include the back wing of the school with the pitched metal roof as well as a canopy in the parking lot. Wilhelmsen said that there are a number of pine trees that would most likely need to be removed to increase the amount of sun received by the panels. He referred to them as sitting “ominously over the school.”
Wilhelmsen said he has had discussions with both the Town Properties Committee as well as the Plympton Selectmen. As a result, the focus, for now, will be on the rear part of the building. The rear mounted solar operation in the parking lot would incur a lot more cost and could result in an overproduction of power. The company, who works with Harvard and is well established in Massachusetts, still needs to come out and assess the roof and provide final costs.
Fraser was quick to point out that entering into the agreement at this point was exploratory only and either side could still back out. The Committee approved a motion to recommend to the selectmen that they enter into the non-binding agreement.
The Committee had a discussion around the need for a building-based substitute. Director of Business Services Christine Healy said that the substitute line in the budget is “doing remarkably well.” The Committee approved paying for a building-based substitute at $150 a day for 100 days beginning in January for as long as the school remains in either a hybrid or full, in-person model.
Healy told the Committee that she had reached out and found a consultant to help with the bids for the new playground. They would act as the school’s agent and make sure that everything was done to specifications including making sure it is ADA compliant. The cost for the consultant will be $13,300. Fraser agreed that as long as there were school choice funds available and a contingency remains, it would make sense to bring someone on to ensure that mistakes aren’t made. The Committee voted to allow Healy to hire the consultant.
Administrator of Special Education Marie Grable gave a presentation on the state of special education in Plympton and across the district as a whole. She gave similar presentations at the Halifax, Kingston, and Silver Lake Regional School Committee meetings in recent weeks. Grable said there are 45 students overall in Plympton and 643 in the district receiving special education services. Plympton’s percentage of students receiving these services stands at 18.2 percent that is just higher than the state average.
The breakdown of Plympton students receiving services includes 32 students at the Dennett, 5 at the integrated preschool, 4 in sub separate programs for Grades K-6, and 4 out of district placements. Out of district tuitions for FY21 total $553,106 for Plympton and out of district transportation totals $97,650.
Grable also shared information regarding various funding sources including Circuit Breaker, the state’s program to help local school districts provide special education services. Plympton’s total claim for FY21 is $242,104, the net claim is $97,048, and the anticipated reimbursement is $67,934. Several grants are also available including Fund Code 240 in the amount of $56,278. Fund Code 262 and Fund Code 298 which are geared toward Pre-K learners, total $2,567 and $1,085 respectively. Plympton will also receive $5,969 toward professional development from Fund Code 274.
Fraser praised Grable for bringing students back to in- district programming. He said that during her time in the position, she has excelled at keeping costs low while also keeping kids close to their local communities. Wilhelmsen seconded Fraser’s sentiments.