The Plympton School Committee met virtually on Monday, Feb. 22, to discuss, among other things, their plan for increased in-person learning time. It was a well-attended meeting with many parents eager to hear the proposal.
Dennett Elementary School Principal Peter Veneto led the discussion on the new plan. Veneto began by explaining that capacity limitations and physical distancing requirements on buses were lifted on February 11. The physical distancing requirement at lunch remains at 6 ft. Veneto proposed a return to full, in-person learning five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. daily. The current hybrid model includes 12 hours of in-person learning and the newly proposed plan would increase that to 20 hours. There would be no lunch or recess in school under Veneto’s plan but there would be an afternoon component of either asynchronous or synchronous remote learning depending on the grade level. The cafeteria staff would have to organize a sort of grab and go breakfast and lunch program.
Veneto explained that by not serving lunch during the day, it affords them space in the cafeteria to be utilized as classrooms. Gym class would also have to be held somewhere other than the gymnasium as that space would likely also be used as a classroom. Under the new plan, afternoons on Wednesdays would be reserved for professional development and planning for the staff. The hope would be to begin the new model at the beginning of Term 3 on March 22.
Next steps will include sending out a survey to parents to assess their level of interest and comfort in the new model. Veneto said they will also need to find out if the bus company, First Student, will be able to accommodate the newly proposed hours. Veneto said that he is not anticipating any budget implications for the new model at this time.
The fully remote Cohort C was also discussed with Veneto saying that they would have to take a hard look at the current staff and make determinations about whether new hires will have to be made. Parent Jessica Kinsman asked if the Cohort C students could potentially lose their current teachers. Veneto said, “To be truthful, that is a possible scenario.” Kinsman asked that the Cohort C students retain their current teachers to reduce the number of transitions they will need to be subjected to in an already difficult year. Veneto said that he understood noting that he was concerned with providing them the same level of effort and support as the other cohorts. The State has mandated 35 hours of synchronous learning over a 10-day school period this year for schools that are in a hybrid model. Committee member Jason Fraser said that regardless of the requirement, if 40 hours of synchronous learning time is provided for the in-person cohorts, the same 40 hours must be met for the fully remote students in the interest of equity.
Several parents on the call had questions regarding lunchtime and whether it might be feasible for students to eat in the classrooms if physical distancing requirements of six feet were already in place. Veneto said the greatest challenge would be having supervision on the children. Parent Nikki Mahoney asked if there was any consideration for parent volunteers to alleviate the stress of monitoring the kids at lunchtime. “I definitely would be open to people possibly coming in to help out,” Veneto said. Many parents on the call offered that they would be available for volunteering. School Committee Chair Jon Wilhelmsen pointed out the importance of limiting the number of people coming into the school.
Some parents, including Committee members, expressed concern over how they would be able to make the new hours work with their work schedules. Several people said that it just would not be possible for them to pick their child up each day at 12:30, forcing them to have to use the bus or add to potential exposures by accepting rides with other families. Parent Angela Wilbur said, “This plan is a logistical nightmare for me.” “It is going to have to be a compromise; I wish that I could provide school from 2019,” Veneto said.
Wilbur asked if the intention was for this plan to be a short-term one with the goal to increase more in-person learning time later or if the plan would remain through the end of the year. Veneto called the proposal “a step in the right direction” and said that he would re-evaluate after the staff is able to be vaccinated and the new plan able to be tested.
Wilbur also expressed concern that she believes Plympton will soon be the only town of the three Silver Lake communities not to return to a full day in person five days a week. She said that she worried that the Plympton students will be at a disadvantage academically compared to their peers. Some parents became quite heated while expressing their dismay at the proposed plan and what they perceived to be a failure on the behalf of the administration and School Committee. Parent Stephani Teran came to the defense of the administration and School Committee attributing their cautious approach to the success of the school in mitigating the spread of the virus.
Several parents with children spread out among different schools in the district expressed concern with the conflicting dismissal times. According to those on the call, the middle school would be dismissed at 12:20 and the high school at 12:45. Veneto said that he would adjust the schedule as needed saying that the dismissal could be moved a half an hour earlier or later if necessary.
Parent Michelle Ruxton asked what the remote learning would look like were there to be a close contact exposure that forced a quarantine. Veneto said that one of the benefits of the current model is that should a student need to stay home, they can receive remote, synchronous learning. He said that it might not be possible to offer that under the new model.
Parents will have about a week to complete the survey regarding the plan for increased, in-person learning. Wilhelmsen said that depending on the results of the survey, the School Committee may need to have another brief meeting to address it.
The official public budget hearing for FY2022 for the Dennett was held during Monday’s meeting. There were no public comments made. Superintendent Jill Proulx gave a presentation on the budget. Veneto was asked to provide a level service budget. The budget assumes a full, in-person return to school.
The regular day budget reflects a 6.20 percent increase, and the total budget represents a 3.97 percent increase or $147,560 more than the previous year. Capital projects include driveway/parking lot improvements, a fire suppression upgrade at $5,000, and a full-time, building based substitute at $27,000.
Proulx said that the School Committee will need to meet with the Finance Committee to find out how they would like to handle budgeting for the unknowns. Those unknowns include any potential remote components next year as well as a potentially larger than usual kindergarten class.
Fraser told the Committee that the Governor came out with the State budget and Plympton’s Chapter 70 funding will be level funded. Fraser also said that the State is considering increasing funding to schools under the Student Opportunity Act though he noted that Governor Baker does not see a way to make that a reality at this time. There is, however, likely to be money coming to Massachusetts for K-12 education through a federal package.
Fraser also told the Committee that the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) has joined many other entities in advocating to allow local administration of vaccines as previously planned.
He said they are also fighting to move teachers to the top of the list of employees receiving the vaccine. He noted that this was with the understanding that elders, first responders, healthcare workers, and those with two comorbidities be vaccinated first.