The Plympton School Committee met remotely on the evening of Monday, Jan. 24. Superintendent Jill Proulx spoke to a change in the District’s COVID testing program. Previously, Silver Lake was enrolled in the State’s test and stay program. In that program, caregivers were able to opt into testing at school should their child have a school related exposure. The program allowed students to be tested and, if negative, stay in school rather than quarantine at home. Proulx told the Committee that since the implementation of the program in the State, 98 percent of tests were negative. “For that reason, they know that schools are safe and the best place for them [students] to be,” she explained.
Dennett Elementary School Principal Peter Veneto said, “overall I think the test and stay program – it met its goals; it kept the kids in school.” He also credited the hard work and overtime put in by school nurse Ryann Camara and staff for making the program a success. Of the 570 tests performed at Dennett, only eight were positive. This means that 562 school days were salvaged through the program.
Despite the success of the program, DESE and the Department of Public Health (DPH) recognize the strain placed on school health staff and now recommend that districts participate in a new program. Districts that elect to forgo the test and stay program will be provided with rapid antigen at-home tests for all participating staff and students that can be used on a weekly basis. Districts that choose instead to maintain test and stay will need to continue contact tracing and will not receive the at-home tests.
Implementation of the new testing program means that contact tracing will no longer be done, and any potential in-school contacts do not need to quarantine. Instead, the focus will shift to monitoring for symptomatic individuals. Individuals who test positive on an at-home test will need to report the results. Proulx explained, “For at least the next several weeks, distribution to staff and students will be staggered, with staff getting one kit (2 tests) the week of January 24 and participating students getting one kit (2 tests) the week of January 31.”
Proulx said similar programs have already been transitioned to in both Connecticut and Vermont. She also told the Committee that the new option is only being made available to Districts that continue or start symptomatic and/or pooled testing; Silver Lake already participates in symptomatic testing.
Committee member Dan Cadogen asked how many children at Dennett are fully vaccinated. Veneto said that as of January 24, 26 percent of students are fully vaccinated. Committee Chair Jon Wilhelmsen confirmed that there are many other children who have had one dose of the vaccine and are awaiting the second dose. Wilhelmsen also said that the vaccination numbers published on the school website are not accurate and reflect a lower vaccination rate.
Playground and Solar Panel Update
Wilhelmsen provided an update on the playground saying that it is now open. Due to timing and weather-related constraints, the rubberized surfacing that was going to be put down has been temporarily replaced by mulch. Wilhelmsen told the Committee that the surfacing will likely be put down following the close of school for the year in order to avoid closing it down for any length of time while school is in session. He said that funds will determine how much of the mulch can be replaced by rubberized surface.
Wilhelmsen also provided an update on the solar panels. He said he met with the Town Administrator and the solar company to try and get the agreements sorted. Once they have the agreement, they can make any adjustments with town counsel. He said the goal is to have everything signed ahead of town meeting in order to get the necessary articles through at that time. The goal is to have the panels installed prior to the start of school in the fall.
Committee member Jason Fraser provided a legislative update. Fraser told the Committee, that House 1, the first pass of the FY23 budget at the State level, comes out this week. He said that they are pushing to make sure they are using a multiplier for Chapter 70 that is in line with current inflation. “We’re asking them to use the consumer price index in the northeast as a multiplier for inflation.”
At the federal level, he said the IDEA Full Funding Act looks to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) over a ten-year period. Additionally, he said they are looking to seek an extension of the free meals program that has been implemented in schools throughout the pandemic.
Veneto gave a brief school update saying that current enrollment stands at 240 students. He also told the Committee that he has a good lead on the vacant music teacher position. “It’s challenging for those part time positions to find people that are interested,” he explained. Finally, he said a $1,000 gift was made to the school by a donor who wished to remain anonymous.
New Literacy Program
K-6 Curriculum Coordinator Melissa Farrell gave a presentation on the new K-5 literacy program – Collaborative Classroom. In selecting a program Farrell said the team was “thinking about how we can be a little bit more progressive in our work with students.”
Farrell said they are in the implementation phase which includes an extended field test process. There are 20 teachers testing the program throughout the District with 5 of those at the Dennett. Farrell acknowledged the efforts of those teachers who include Beth Antoine, Gail Belcher, Lauren Bellao, Dawn Day, Kristina Josselyn, Sharon Landers, Liz McCartney, Kara McNerney, Devon Morse, Jenna Ouellet, Megan Parker, Meghan Piccini, Kristen Pishkin, Jennifer Reidy, Dawn Richardson, Meghan Shaheen, Beth Splaine, JaneMarie Sylvester, Lisa Tamasco, and Ann Walker. Of the 20 teachers selected to be a part of the field testing, 17 have supported moving forward with the program.
The process thus far has included field test 1, field test 2, pilot meetings and feedback rubric, classroom visits and check-ins, and consensus meetings. She said that a lack of substitutes made the consensus meetings difficult. As a result, the meetings were held at individual grade levels which Farrell said provided an interesting perspective on how each grade level was affected by the program.
Farrell said that qualities they were looking for in the program were that it was aligned, research-based, balanced with technology and print, and most importantly, fun for students. She said they were also seeking to make sure professional development was a priority so that they were not only supplying teachers with high quality materials but also improving instructional processes in the classroom. They were also looking for the program to include more non-fiction works including those that extended into other subject areas.
The schedule for the program includes training and planning time for K-5 teachers throughout the spring of 2022 and Understanding by Design (UBD) unit development and grade level scope and sequence planning over the summer.
Proulx gave a preliminary budget presentation. She told the Committee that Circuit Breaker, the State’s special education reimbursement program, was estimated at 65 percent for the initial budget. The regular day budget increase was 6.04 percent while there was a decrease of 11.02 percent in special education. The total budget represented an increase of 0.71 percent or an increase of $27,073 over the previous year. Veneto said he was estimating the incoming kindergarten class to match the size of the outgoing class therefore avoiding any potential enrollment increase. Notable increases were for textbooks, instructional software, and shared costs.
Some of the proposed costs that went beyond a level service budget included an adjustment counselor estimated at $65,000, a part-time ELL teacher estimated at $22,000, and a part-time instrumental music teacher for Grades 4-5 estimated at $11,000. With respect to the counselor, Veneto stressed the rise in requests for mental health services during the pandemic saying that cases of anxiety in students had quadrupled in the last few years. He also noted the difficulty of finding outside mental health services as most are not accepting new patients.
Veneto shared with the Committee some of the projects that had been completed in FY22 including the playground project, the paving project, the parking lot, tree removal, and the purchase of a custodial floor machine. Projects that still need completion going into FY23 include flooring replacement estimated at $9,800 per room for 4 rooms, rooftop unit replacement estimated at $30,000 each for 5 units, and replacement of the exterior siding for which a quote has not yet been established.