The Plympton School Committee began their July 22 meeting by reviewing the results of the Parent Intentions School Re-Entry Survey that had closed that afternoon. Superintendent Jill Proulx and Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch presented the findings for Dennett Elementary. The survey was non-binding and intended only for informational purposes.
Results of Parent Intentions Survey
Response to the parent survey was strong with 122 people answering, accounting for nearly 70 percent of caregivers. When asked if they plan to send their student(s) to school on site and in person in the fall, nearly 65 percent said they were. Only 5.74 percent said no and nearly 30 percent responded they were undecided.
Caregivers were also asked to respond about their intended mode of transportation. Nearly 46 percent said they intended to use bus services, 53 percent said they were going to drive and drop-off, and only one respondent said they planned to bike or walk. With social distancing guidelines, only one-third of students can fit on the buses.
Preferences for the manner in which school will resume were also explored. The majority of respondents chose some version of a hybrid model that includes six feet of social distancing. Options in this category included attending school with six feet of distance on alternating days (14.88 percent), attending school with six feet of distance on alternating weeks (13.22 percent), or attending school with six feet of distance for half days (9.09 percent). The next largest number of participants or 42.15 percent said they would choose in person learning with three feet of distancing. Only 13.22 percent said they preferred fully online learning. Nearly eight percent responded other.
General concerns of in-person learning included safety, health risks, difficulty of wearing a mask, and staffing levels. Concerns with remote learning included the quality of online learning, loss of social interaction, loss of academic content, and the inability to work with children at home.
Results from the Staff Intentions Survey
The staff survey responses were also presented to the committee. Most responses came from teachers with paraprofessionals making up the next largest number of respondents. Based on the current circumstances, 72 percent of staff said that they do plan on returning to school in-person in the fall. Only one person said no and six said they were undecided. Proulx told the committee that most staff preferred returning to school in person, followed by a hybrid model, with fully remote learning coming in last in the survey. Nearly 74 percent of staff surveyed said their greatest concern with in-person teaching was safety. The greatest staff concern with remote learning was being able to effectively engage students online. Regardless of the mode of schooling, staff also shared concern for the social and emotional health of their students.
July 27 Plympton School Committee Meeting
The Plympton School Committee met again on July 27 this time to review and vote on the preliminary reopening plan that is being submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on Friday, July 31. The preliminary plan consists of three plans – one for full time in person learning, one for full time remote learning, and one that is a hybrid of the two. Superintendent Jill Proulx said the plans are a result of the efforts of the elementary and secondary working groups who have met twice to work on devising a safe reopening plan. The working groups are made up of staff, counselors, parents, nurses, association leaders, and even students at the secondary level. Proulx noted that the plans also consider the feedback accumulated from the various surveys that have been conducted. By August 10 districts must finalize their comprehensive plan and release it publicly.
Model One: Full In-Person Learning
Proulx and Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch gave a presentation outlining the three versions of the preliminary plan. All three models will follow a consistent schedule in case the school needs to shift from one mode to another. Proulx said the plan for in person learning would use six feet of social distancing wherever possible while meeting DESE’s requirement for three feet, where six feet is not possible. She also noted that the administration recognizes that there is no substitute for in-person instruction and that school plays an important role in social and emotional learning. Proulx said that under the first plan, an option would remain for those that need to remain remote for either health or safety reasons. Just as will be expected with either the in-person or hybrid plan, safety protocols will include masks, ventilation, handwashing, and signage (including floor stickers to indicate appropriate distancing).
Limited Bus Capacity
With social distancing, buses will be at one-third capacity, with a maximum of 24 students on a 77-passenger bus. Students from the same family may share a seat. The state has recommended bus monitors, something Proulx said is estimated to cost $27,000 per position. During the previous meeting vice chair Jason Fraser, the son of two school bus drivers, said it would be too much to ask the drivers to monitor the students. Of the drivers, Fraser said, “I want to be sure that we’re doing right by them as well.” Concerns over adding additional bus runs to accommodate more students include feasibility as well as financial strain. At the elementary level, the cost of the additional runs would be $5,000 per day or $450,000 over the first 90 days of school.
Model Two: A Hybrid Approach
Two different versions of the hybrid model were presented as potential options. Both options would include live instruction daily regardless of whether students were in-person or remote on a given day. Proulx said that the Massachusetts Association of Superintendents is leaning toward the hybrid approach. Under the hybrid models there would be four cohorts of students, those that remain fully remote, those that are eligible to attend 4 days a week in person due to high needs, and two cohorts of students who would attend school remotely and in-person on alternating schedules. One schedule calls for the alternating students to attend school for two consecutive days each week and the other calls for those students to alternate on a weekly basis.
Under both plans Wednesday remains a fully remote day which would allow for the disinfecting of the building as well as professional development for staff. In both plans Wednesday afternoons are reserved for synchronous instruction between students and teachers.
Model Three: Full Remote Learning
Proulx and Lynch also presented the plan for fully remote learning. The model would follow a daily schedule and would consist of both synchronous class meetings and asynchronous learning. The administration said they understand the need for professional development for teachers with respect to not only technology tools but also best practices for remote learning. Social and emotional support would be available. Proulx said that while no formal decisions have been made, Schoology seems to be the favored learning management system.
Once the plan is approved prior to August 10, teacher assignments will need to be made as well as student cohorts established if necessary. The building will also need to be physically prepared. Dennett Elementary School principal Peter Veneto, who will play a large hand in preparing the building, praised head custodian Matt Durkee saying the Dennett is in as good a shape as any school. “It is really nice to have somebody that is as on top of it as he is,” Veneto said. At their previous meeting, bathrooms were discussed as an area of cross contamination. Some studies have shown that coronavirus aerosols from toilets can linger either in the air or on surfaces. The need for things such as automatic soap dispensers and automatic paper towel holders are being considered. These types of expenses may potentially be reimbursable.
Six Feet Minimum
Following the presentation, the committee reiterated some of their preferences, or non-negotiables, from past meetings. Fraser thanked Proulx, Lynch, and the rest of the administrative team for the level of dialogue they have had with the committee regarding the plans. “I appreciate the level of engagement,” he told them. Fraser went on to say that he understood the need to show plans that include three feet of distancing per DESE’s request but reiterated the committee’s decision that six feet is the minimum acceptable distance for any setting at the Dennett. Fraser said he would only allow for a reduction should Massachusetts move onto Phase 4 during which therapeutics or a vaccine would be available. Newest committee member Daniel Cadogen concurred. Chair Jon Wilhelmsen said, “If we can do six feet plus, we should do that.” Dennett teacher Ann Walker added, “Six feet for a child is three feet, three feet – they’re going to be right on top of each other.” Teacher Christine Marcolini thanked the committee for holding to six feet as an acceptable minimum.
Lunch and Recess
The committee and administration also tackled the complicated issues of lunch and recess in school. Proulx said that many students surveyed cited looking forward to lunch and the corresponding socialization it provides. Veneto said that with the current guidelines lunch would likely look quite “military” with only a few students to a table and all facing the same direction in assigned seating. Everyone at the meeting agreed that children need to have some movement during the school day and cannot be expected to sit for six hours. Fraser said that there is a big push for counting outside play as part of the required learning hours this year since the commissioner is citing students’ social and emotional welfare as a big reason for the push to get kids back in school.
A Remote Start
Fraser shared with the committee his feeling that it would be in the best interest of all involved to start the school year remotely, not necessarily for months but perhaps for several weeks. “We do not need to be the canary in the coal mine for Massachusetts,” he told those assembled. He also told them that years from now no one would remember if they took a few extra weeks to get it right, but they would remember if they rushed and something went wrong. Wilhelmsen agreed saying, “not rushing is not a bad thing.” Committee member Amy Hempel said that as a working parent, the hybrid model was appealing. She said that while nothing was ideal, the schedule with two days in school each week and three at home at least offered a sense of consistency around which her work schedule could be planned. In the end the committee voted to approve the preliminary plan with the caveat that Plympton will only accept 6 feet of distancing until Massachusetts enters Phase 4. The preference voted upon would be to start the year remotely and slowly roll out a hybrid plan. The committee plans to meet again on August 6 to vote through a more complete plan. At the July 22 meeting, Wilhelmsen stressed the importance of constantly reassessing the school’s plan and making small, incremental changes to reduce risk. The goals of Plympton’s plan to reopen remain providing the highest quality education for students while also providing the highest level of safety for the community.