The Halifax Elementary School Committee met in-person on Dec. 6 at the Town Hall. It began with a school attorney providing guidelines for future school committee meetings including that masks would not be required as they would be held at Town Hall instead of a school building. A vote was taken, and the protocols were adopted by the Committee.
The meeting, which was well attended, was open for public participation. A resident said she was having difficulty accessing the meeting times and agendas. Committee Chair Summer Schmaling said that due to the open meeting law, agendas are posted 48 hours prior to the meetings. She pointed out that the meetings are also available on the district website via the calendar.
Another resident who said she is a parent of a student at Halifax Elementary spoke saying she gathered from the agenda that the Committee would be requesting of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that they give authority to local governing bodies to determine what is best for their schools as it pertains to COVID-19. She addressed the Committee with a number of questions that began “What makes you as a Committee think…” She questioned why they would believe that Halifax should have different mandates than the rest of the state as well as why it would be a good time to lift the mask mandate while cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. She asked rhetorically if they conferred with the school nurse, staff and administrators, and parents before deciding to take a vote regarding COVID-19 restrictions.
The Halifax Teachers’ Association made a statement. Elizabeth Antoine spoke on behalf of the HTA saying, “First and foremost we are here to express our goal in building a successful and respectful partnership between the Halifax Teachers’ Association and the Halifax School Committee…as the HTA we would like to address the public comments made at the Selectmen’s meeting.” At this point, Schmaling interjected and said that if they wanted to address comments from the Selectmen’s meeting, they would need to be placed on a Selectmen’s agenda and attend one of their meetings. A member of the audience asked if the comments were regarding the School Committee and Schmaling told her that it was irrelevant if it happened during the Selectmen’s meeting. Much later in the meeting another resident tried to address Antoine’s statement being cut short but was told simply, “moving on” by Schmaling.
Schmaling addressed the letter that she wrote to be sent to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. She said she would also like to see the letter be sent to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Commissioner, Governor Charlie Baker, Senator Michael Brady, and Representative Kathy LaNatra. Schmaling said that the letter was in response to a lack of a response from a letter sent in September seeking information regarding COVID protocols. Schmaling said that the letter was public record and anyone could have access to it at any time.
Committee member Lauren Laws said, “I do agree that some of the information in the letter needs to be clarified but I think some of the reasoning as to why is a little bit not transparent… I agree with a lot of the points of what’s the endgame – how do we get back to more normalcy?” She continued, “At this point with cases rising, I mean, I feel like keeping our kids in school is a top priority and so far there are studies that show that masking works.” Laws further said that she didn’t believe any questions regarding masking or not masking should be kept in the letter. “Let’s not appear to be on one side of the mask issue,” Laws said. Schmaling asked for edits and Laws provided what she would like to see removed from the letter. Schmaling and Laws have notoriously been on opposing sides of the masking debate with Schamling adamantly against mandates and Laws in favor of them. Laws said she didn’t believe the letter should be sent without input from the community. “Take a look at this room and see how many people are masked and I think you might see how our community feels about it,” Laws said. She later stressed that she felt it important to survey the school population and the town regarding the issue.
Schmaling asked for a motion to send the letter to the aforementioned parties. The Committee agreed to send the letter and moved onto a discussion of what that letter should entail. Gordon Andrews, who is not only a school committee member but also a Halifax Selectman, said he felt that he needed more time to think over the contents of the letter and that he would potentially like to see the Committee make a public records request as a public body to gather the information used by DESE to make their decisions. Attorney Dupre spoke up and said that to his knowledge, DESE has not been responding to any school committees that have reached out with questions. Dupre suggested asking the Mass Association of School Committees to request those kinds of records from DESE.
Andrews said, “If we were going to send a letter requesting all the information, I would also be requesting what are they going to do to increase access to all the students who are behind developmentally for the summer and following years… I think if we’re going to send another letter it should be detailed – these are the things that are important to Halifax.” Andrews alluded to masking causing developmental issues and asked what the MASC will do to combat those issues. Laws countered that everything cannot be blamed on the masks as there were other significant factors related to the pandemic that have caused delays, etc. “I think we kind of need to take a bigger picture approach…I feel like there is a lot more to this letter than when are we getting masks off,” she said. Schmaling asked for edits to be sent to her. The Committee voted to table the letter until more details could be gathered.
Schmaling took a moment to acknowledge the retirements of Halifax Elementary School grade 3 teacher Matthew Kaetzer and grade four teacher Robert Dray as well as school attorney Fred Dupre. The Committee members had a multitude of kind things to say about all the retirees.
An update was given on the PTO. A mingle and jingle event was held in lieu of breakfast with Santa. The event included pictures with Santa and a raffle. Youth and Rec also provided a brief update. The basketball program is utilizing the gym 7 days a week. Stem, Game Club, and Art Club are still currently on hold due to COVID.
Principal Kayne Beaudry provided an update. He said that after school programs were all booming and filled to the max when COVID hit. He said they are working toward getting those programs back up and running. He said that a successful lockdown and evacuation drill was run at the school. The turkey trot and food drive was successful despite the chilly temperatures. He said that over 2,000 donations went to the Halifax food pantry as well as over $13,000 in turkey gift cards. Beaudry also said that $13,000 were raised during the PTO book fair. Holiday vacation will begin on December 24 with everyone returning on January 3.
Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch gave an update on curriculum updates. He said that they have been focusing on how to make progress on their social and emotional learning goal. He said that a student survey on the issue was implemented and nearly 90 percent of Halifax students completed it. It assessed a number of social and emotional areas. He said that teachers will be trained on how to assess the results.
Lynch also provided an update on the three rounds of ESSER funding which is intended to aid in areas affected by the pandemic. He said that the Halifax allocation for ESSER II was about $106,000. Lynch said that the ESSER III funding for Halifax has been submitted but they have yet to receive the confirmation regarding the $225,000 allocated there. Lynch said that a minimum of $10,000 of the ESSER II funding must be spent on social and emotional learning. Schmaling asked what they had planned for ESSER III. He said they just spent money on some assessment programs to identify needs in reading and math as well as English learners. He said that working to make progress toward student supports in social and emotional learning would be high on the priority list as well.
Superintendent Jill Proulx provided a district update. She said that she and other administrators had met with Beaudry to prepare for the budget presentation for January. She went over some enrollment data including homeschool enrollment for K-6. It has gone down in Halifax from 16 students to 15 students for fiscal year 2021-2022. For grades 7-12, across the towns, homeschool has risen by 7 students. Halifax total enrollment has decreased by 5 students at the elementary level and 16 students at the secondary level.
Proulx said the social and emotional learning taskforce will be expanded to include all grades k-12. Included in that is an anti-bullying curriculum. She said it will be expanded to the middle and high schools to ensure a common language within the schools surrounding social and emotional learning. She said that inclusion standards are being implemented to ensure that those on IEPs are not in a substantially separate program unless absolutely necessary. “When we pull students out of the classroom, we tend to find that the gap grows,” Proulx said.
Proulx also talked about growth mindset. She said, “Our expectations, our beliefs in our children and the children’s belief in their own ability to persevere have a profound impact on whether or not they will persevere and have the tenacity and grit to succeed.” She went on to say that we should have troubles and be able to say, “I’m not good at that yet” as opposed to just “I’m not good at that.”
Proulx also addressed the posting of vaccination rates for staff and students. Schmaling said her initial reaction was that she would not want that to happen but said that she wanted to open it up to the Committee as a whole. “The vaccination rates are already public,” Laws said. “I figure since it is public information, why not make it accessible,” she continued. Schmaling said, “I didn’t think it was an appropriate place for it to be on the school website.” Laws suggested possibly a link to where it could be found. Schmaling asked why do it for COVID vaccination status when it isn’t done for other vaccinations. Most of the Committee seemed against publishing the rates on the school website.
The Committee also reviewed and discussed the test and stay program. Proulx said that the test and stay program is intended to allow close contacts to stay in school as long as they remain asymptomatic and receive a negative rapid test each day. They must also monitor for the development of any symptoms. Close contacts exempt from quarantining or test and stay are those on buses, those who have previously been diagnosed with COVID in the last 90 days and are recovered and without COVID symptoms, and those exposed in the classroom while wearing a mask and spaced at least 3 feet apart. Schmaling said that she has been asked if one sibling is awaiting a COVID test, should the other stay home. She said that no, they should not. Additionally, Schmaling mentioned that the test and stay program is intended only for those who were exposed in school. Beaudry said the nurse notifies close contacts that were within six feet but only those within 3 feet qualify for test and stay. It was also mentioned that children who qualify for test and stay are allowed to take the bus.
Schmaling said she has been asked what constitutes an outbreak. She said the nurse said that 20 percent of the student body being out sick with an illness would qualify as an outbreak. Proulx said that thus far there has been no evidence of classroom spread.