The Silver Lake Regional School Committee met for three hours on Thursday, Oct. 22. Newest member Lukasz Kowalksi was in attendance representing Plympton.
High school principal Michaela Gill and middle school principal Jim Dupille provided the Committee with updates. Gill began by saying that the graduation date this year will be moved from Saturday morning to Friday evening as was done this past summer. Gill said they received a lot of positive feedback regarding the switch and also said that it allows the rain date to be the following day. The new date will be Friday, June 4 with a rain date of June 5. Committee member Eric Crone said that as a parent of a graduating senior last year, he agreed with the change and noted the cooler temperatures during the evening. Gill also said that due to the overwhelming success of the senior parade held due to COVID restrictions, it may become a new tradition moving forward.
The school hosted its first ever virtual back to school night with teachers creating slide presentations and videos for parents to view at their convenience. The presentations remain on the website should anyone still wish to view them. Parent-teacher conferences were also held virtually and Gill said that there was a 10.5 percent increase in parent participation over the previous year. She attributed the increase to the convenience of parents not having to take time off from work or schedule a babysitter in order to attend. Gill said that they will consider restructuring both the back to school event and the conferences in the future, perhaps offering a remote option even after the pandemic is over.
Gill also brought before the Committee a request to approve both drama and band beginning in a limited capacity after school. Band would begin as just one day a week and would include percussion instruments only to avoid the possible risk posed by wind instruments. The drama program, which will include only one show this year during the spring, would also be meeting one day per week after school in the auditorium. Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch said the requests complied with DESE guidelines and the Committee voted unanimously to approve.
Due to the pandemic last year, the requirement for seniors to complete community service hours was waived. Gill said she has been fielding questions regarding whether the same accommodation will be made this year. Given that there have already been some opportunities for students to complete hours either virtually or with safety protocols in place, Gill said she would like to hold off on making a final decision on whether or not to waive the requirement until after the new year.
The school participated in raising funds for breast cancer research in October through a small staff fundraising event which was held virtually. Students were also encouraged to wear pink to help raise awareness. Students also participated in a global Unity Day that entailed wearing orange to stand in solidarity against bullying.
Gill also recognized several teachers and staff members for their outstanding efforts in getting school started this year including the school nurse who Gill said is the first one in the building every day. “Without her obviously we would not have been able to open our doors this year… I don’t think she’s slept since March 12,” Gill told the Committee.
Dupille said that parent teacher conferences were coming up at the middle school on November 18 and 19 and said the format would be the same as the high school. He also said that Term 1 progress reports would be issued electronically. Like the high school, Dupille said they held a virtual back to school night. Parents were able to speak virtually with their children’s teachers.
A Halloween costume contest was planned by student council and students in the in-person cohorts were encouraged to wear their costumes to school as part of Spirit Week.
Dupille said he wanted to thank his teachers and other staff such as the custodial staff. He noted their dedication saying, “students are the recipient of all that hard work.”
CARES Act Funds and Technology Needs
The administration was able to speak to the towns of Halifax, Kingston, and Plympton about sharing their CARES Act funds with Silver Lake Regional. A meeting was scheduled so that the three towns and the school could discuss how best to ensure that an adequate share of each town’s allocation is going toward the region. Committee member Christopher Eklund said, “whatever is proportionate to our portion of the towns’ budgets is fair to ask for.”
Director of Business Services Christine Healy said that Representative Kathy LaNatra was able to secure $120,000 in CARES Act funding for Silver Lake to be used for technology infrastructure as well as $26,000 to be used for PPE.
Considerations for technology expenditures include laptops for faculty instead of chromebooks as well as a technology paraprofessional position through the end of the year. Teachers have been finding that the chromebooks don’t support the kind of work they are doing. Silver Lake Technology Director Steve Pellowe told the Committee that chromebooks are not designed to run Google Meets while also having multiple tabs open.
There was some discussion among the Committee regarding the need for laptops for students as well. Pellowe said that in an ideal world, laptops would be issued for all students in Grades 7-12 but noted that laptops run approximately $1000 a piece while chromebooks are only $230. Pelllowe also said that the repairs and upkeep for laptops are far costlier. Even if CARES Act funds could be secured for the purchase of laptops for students in older grades, Pellowe said, “the ongoing costs would be so high I think it would be unsustainable.” Crone cited the durability of chromebooks as another reason why they are ideal for students.
The Committee voted to approve laptops for the faculty as well as the tech para position through the end of the year. The estimated cost for these items is roughly $184,000.
Some members of the Committee expressed concern over spending CARES Act funds on technology expenses that assume a remote or hybrid model through the end of the year rather than a return to full-in person learning. Committee member Leslie-Ann McGee stressed that with guidelines and budget restrictions what they are, it would be impossible for schools to open up full time even if the communities stay out of the red zone. Committee member Gordon Andrews noted that the busing restrictions prevent a return to full in-person learning but did note that a change to that guideline might change how best to spend CARES Act funds.
Superintendent Jill Proulx said, “I recognize the hardship that the hybrid model and remote model and basically just not returning to a traditional classroom setting has caused for many students and families and so I am aware of that. We have discussed before some of the issues that will arise with returning to full, in-person and that is the need for the regulations with regards to busing to change because we had determined a while ago that that would be cost prohibitive for us as a regional school district and we are required to provide transportation.”
Proulx said the other issue that would make a return to full, in-person learning difficult is the 6 ft social distance mandate during lunch. While DESE guidance allows for less than that in a classroom setting, lunchtime requires more distance.
Proulx said that as of October 1, enrollment at the middle school was 524 and 1,082 at the high school for an overall decrease of 19 students over last year. Assessment percentages for 2022 stand at a 10 percent increase for both Halifax and Kingston and a 20 percent decrease for Plympton. The shared cost percentage for Halifax will be increasing by 20 percent and increasing by 10 percent for Kingston. Plympton, on the other hand, will see a 60 percent decrease. Proulx told the Committee that there has been an increase in students attending private and charter schools as well as being homeschooled. Additionally, many elementary school aged children have chosen to take a year off before entering kindergarten. Proulx said it was not a Silver Lake problem but rather a problem for all of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Association of Superintendents has asked the state not to hold these numbers against individual schools given the unusual nature of this school year.
Proulx told the Committee that there has been a change in regulatory language that would allow communities in the red for more than 3 weeks to remain in a hybrid model. While still subject to change, Proulx said that even If a community remains in the red for three or more weeks, if there isn’t school spread, the schools may remain open. As the schools’ largest population, Proulx said that Kingston is the primary metric for consideration in deciding whether to change models at Silver Lake Regional. Both the Board of Health and the state has allowed Silver Lake to remain in a hybrid model as there hasn’t been school spread. Proulx said that should there be a cluster of cases or school spread, an epidemiologist for the Department of Health may make the determination to close the schools. She said that Cohort D students would be prioritized for in-person learning in whatever capacity would be allowed.
John Lay spoke on behalf of the Silver Lake Education Association (SLEA). He said, “This year will only work with compromise… Since the start of the year, our teachers have worked without any contract because we hold the best interests of the children of the town higher than our own. We’ve been holding up our end of this compromise.” He continued, “Tonight I’m calling on the School Committee to recognize the efforts and the sacrifices of the faculty and staff of Silver Lake by offering the teachers a fair contract and settling the memorandum of agreement.” Before closing, he added, “We’re overwhelmed. We quite literally couldn’t be working any harder for our students. The School Committee has the power to thank us for all that hard work by settling right now.”
Committee Chair Paula Hatch responded to Lay telling him how appreciative the community and Committee are of the staff’s efforts. “The only thing I’m going to say to that is a lot of people put a lot of time in to try to come to terms, your side and our side. I think we are where we are with mediation and fact-finding because both sides have an idea of where we need to be and we just haven’t been able to come to terms on that,” Hatch said.