The Plympton School Committee voted at its Thursday night Aug. 6 meeting to adopt a hybrid model to open school on September 16. The first two weeks will be remote learning as teachers, administrators, and transportation services all ease into the new protocols.
More than 160 attended the virtual meeting via ZOOM.
Silver Lake Superintendent Jill Proulx introduced the three plans for opening school required by the Massachusetts Department of Education. These plans needed to be submitted by Monday, Aug. 10. They include:
1. In-person learning with new safety requirements: All students return in person; classrooms, schedules, protocols modified to meet health requirements
2. Hybrid learning: Students learn both in-person and remotely.
3. Remote learning: All learning takes place remotely.
Proulx told the committee that a survey was sent out to all parents August 2 and out of 3,572 sent, 2010 responded, or 56%.
Respondents in all three towns narrowly favored in-person learning, with the hybrid model a close second. Full remote learning, available to all students, was a distant third.
A new survey, based on the vote at Thursday night’s meeting, has been issued to parents, asking how many will commit to utilizing the remote model for six months and how many will commit to providing transportation for their students for six months. These numbers are critical because with bus capacity diminished by distancing rules, the administrators need to figure quickly the number of vehicles they will need and how they will be deployed, as well as how best to utilize staff..
Matt Durkee, the new facilities manager, has acquired hospital grade electrostatic sprayers to clean and disinfect the school at least daily, and several times a day for high touch surfaces such as light switches and door handles.
To increase air filtration as much as possible the ventilation system at Dennett Elementary will be adjusted to maximize fresh air and minimize air recirculation. Indoor spaces without windows and adequate HVAC will not be used for classroom space.
Arrival and dismissal procedures, classroom configuration and physical distancing, meals for students, facility configuration and changes, and training for safety measures including cleaning and disinfecting are all subject to state approval. Student and staff commitment and assignments, are subject to state approval and bargaining, Proulx said.
Proulx told the committee that the Commissioner of Education has agreed to change the school year from 180 days to 170 days, allowing up to 10 days for training purposes with the staff for the new school year. Proulx said that taking that into consideration, the new school start date will be Sept. 16.
Dennett school principal Peter Veneto explained to the committee and parents attending the ZOOM meeting, how the scheduling would work. He showed as an example the actual third grade model with 32 students served.
Separated into four cohorts, A and D would be Monday and Tuesday, B and D would be Thursday and Friday. Cohorts A and D will experience remote learning on Thursday and Friday, as B and D will experience remote learning on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesdays will be for professional development, specialists and interventionists, (SPED, reading, math interventions, Title I) will be remote learning. Office hours will be made available as well.
School committee member Jason Fraser congratulated Veneto, “I think the plan you’ve laid out for us is beautiful.” He wanted to be sure that the plan submitted to DESI will specify the 6 foot distance rule.
Committee member Daniel Cadogan pointed out that the 3 feet distancing rule for him is a “non-starter”. “I’m not willing to compromise,” he said, “just to get my child back into school.”
Amy Hempel asked “What about the smaller classes, under 15, could they go back to a 4 day a week school? Veneto answered that in theory, yes, but it would also impact transportation.
Hempel asked, what about cafeteria? Could kids eat in the classrooms? Veneto said that while scheduling lunches was a challenge, having kids eat in classrooms would present its own challenges.
Chairman Jon Wilhelmsen answered that this plan is fluid, and will need to change as circumstances change. “As a school committee, we are committed to making this work.”
Dan Cadogan asked “if we will run into problems” with the six feet distancing with any of the classes. Veneto said no.
“Our job here is not to open schools, but to open them in the best way that we will stay open,” Fraser commented. He noted that numbers of COVID-19 cases are very low at the Dennett. “But if those numbers creep up, we won’t have a decision to make today – those [decisions] will be made for us.”
Amy Varnum asked what the protocol would be to protect students and staff should a student or staff member test positive. Wilhelmsen answered that these steps are being considered, “at a very high level”. There will be clear, standard protocols to deal with the situation, he said.
Fraser responded that DESE gave the committee 19 pages of guidance to respond to various scenarios with regard to COVID-19 but said that the committee would have the choice to tailor the recommendations to each local situation.
Varnum said she woud like to hear more from the school nurses to get their input.
Superintendent Jill Proulx responded that prior to school closure, the administration met with school nurses to get their input on how to meet student needs and best deliver training for staff and developmentally appropriate training for students. There were nurse representatives in both elementary and secondary working groups and features of their recommendations will be worked into their implementation plan.
Scott Devonshire shared his concern that with the complexity of the hybrid model and with some kids choosing to be totally remote, how does the [hybrid model] serve those students? “My fear is that some kids who are totally remote become home schooled.”
Jill Proulx responded that remote learning will be scheduled. In addition there will be staff assigned to those specific times to support students’ learning. “There will be attendance expectations and there will be grading expectations.” We have the support of our school committee, she continued, to consider a new learning mentored platform – Schoology – to help some of the younger students who do not have email to communicate effectively with their teachers. It also is a content platform.
Devonshire said he wanted to be sure fully remote students would not be overlooked.
Proulx said she was trying to devote staff to completely remote learning. Some students will have the same teacher, much like in-person learning, throughout.
Fraser told Devonshire that the school committee voted to have all of the classes, including remote learning classes, taught by Dennett teachers. Once the principal has the count for remote learners, he will be able to make the staff assignments.
As to the question of COVID-19 testing, Proulx responded that there has been no decision from DESE regarding testing, but that doesn’t mean that this won’t change.
Fraser, in an attempt to dispel rumors that school funding and school sports programs will be negatively affected by remote school opening, said that MIAA is not governed by the state. Also, that a bill to hold back school funding to those schools that open remotely may be in congress, but “That bill won’t pass. It has nothing to do with us.”
Fraser made the motion to accept the hybrid model as the Plympton entry with a phased-in approach as discussed. With the understanding that Plympton will maintain 6 feet of distance, masks for each student if medically able, and not to consider full in-person schooling until Massachusetts reaches Phase 4.
Amy Hempel was the only dissenting vote from the committee, although she did not say why at the meeting.
The board also voted unanimously to approve the school calendar as presented, with a start date of Sept. 16 for students, and the understanding that the calendar may change as needed as situations present. It passed unanimously.
Proulx said the administration will send a letter to parents detailing of the opening of school as voted by the committee.
Ann Walker, fourth grade teacher at the Dennett, told the board that she truly appreciates the efforts the administration and board has taken to make returning to school safe for the students and staff.
“We will do what we can to make this unique situation the best for our students, no matter how this develops… This is the first day of school for all of us.”