Chair of the Plympton School Committee Jon Wilhelmsen and Dennett Elementary School Principal Peter Veneto held a parent information session on Thursday, Feb. 11, regarding further in-person learning. Wilhelmsen noted that the evening’s virtual call was not a School Committee meeting. Wilhelmsen began the session with a lengthy statement, the bulk of which is presented below.
“The School Committee, administration, and teachers have always believed that more in-person learning is better for our students; we also have been actively thinking about this for many months… we must achieve additional in-person time in a way that is ultimately safe and successful. As some of our neighboring communities are unfortunately finding out, additional in-person time at the expense of certain safety protocols such as six-foot distancing without additional mitigation efforts can cause even greater disruptions to students’ in-person time… Mr. Veneto, administration, and staff are currently working on a plan for additional in-person learning this school year which will be presented to the School Committee for discussion, consideration, and a vote at our next meeting on Monday, February 22… At a high level, the plan will address increased in-person learning time this year, likely four to five days per week. It is also likely the plan will be dependent upon vaccination of staff to mitigate the six-foot distancing. We are additionally looking at Wednesdays for alternating cohorts to provide additional in-person learning time which is something we think could be done more quickly.”
Veneto added, “I think it’s fairly safe to say that every one of our staff members would like to see children back in the building five days a week. The trouble with that is that we need to make sure that we are doing it safely.”
Parent Katie Rondeau asked if the School Committee and Administration were set in their determination to stick with six feet of physical distancing as opposed to three. Wilhelmsen said they were committed to following the CDC guidance of six feet. He also said that as the staff that wants to be vaccinated are, it would put them in a better position to be able to relax that requirement. He also pointed out that reducing the distancing requirement would result in more close contacts having to quarantine for two weeks if they were exposed to someone who tests positive. Assuming the entire class does not have to quarantine, those that do would likely be doing asynchronous work. Noting the importance of consistency, Wilhelmsen said that Duxbury recently went back to more in-person learning and within a week two second-grade classes were in quarantine for two weeks.
Another parent asked what the administration considered the biggest challenges to a full return. Wilhelmsen said that while Veneto and others are working on a plan for lunchtime it remained a hurdle as the six feet of distancing required at lunch is non-negotiable. Veneto said that 48 students are able to fit on the floor of the cafeteria and another 2 to 4 on the stage while maintaining the DESE mandated six feet. Wilhelmsen said that, just that evening, new guidance had been released that relaxed the requirements for distancing on buses, making that less of an obstacle. “There’s a lot of other logistical issues that just need to be worked out and thought through,” Wilhelmsen responded.
Wilhelmsen answered a question regarding whether the school had a threshold in mind from a vaccination perspective. He said that the hope was the State can get things sorted out so that teachers and staff can be vaccinated as quickly as possible. “If folks want to make some calls, feel free to call DPH or your reps and ask them why they changed what they were doing these last couple of weeks,” he said. There had been a plan for both the Plympton and Halifax Fire Departments to host vaccine clinics in order to assist with a speedy administration of the Phase Two levels of vaccine distribution. “That all fell apart last week when the state took away the doses,” Wilhelmsen explained.
Parent Nikki Mahoney asked if there was a contingency plan for teachers that plan not to get vaccinated. Wilhelmsen said that he, personally, was not thinking that being vaccinated would be a requirement for being in the school.
Wilhelmsen said that he hoped that the school would return to full, in-person learning or close-to, by the end of the current school year so that they could better formulate a plan for the fall. He said that based on what he has heard from the CDC, etc. not much will change between now and the fall in terms of masking still being required and children likely not being vaccinated.
The issue of the large first and fifth grade classes were also discussed as another obstacle to a full return. Veneto noted that the numbers include those students who are currently electing to be fully remote. Currently the art room has been transformed into a fifth-grade classroom. Parent Heather Eddy said that she felt the focus should be placed on how to get those two grades back into the building at six feet of distance and asked about looking for alternative places to put classes. Wilhelmsen pointed out that using a room such as the gym for a classroom would mean that it couldn’t be used for other purposes including gym class and potentially basketball. “The space itself is extremely limited, we have looked at every square inch and we are using every square inch right now,” Veneto explained. Several first-grade parents on the call did note that they wouldn’t be opposed to seeing the other grades return to full, in-person learning even if the first-grade needed to stay hybrid.
Currently the gymnasium is divided with one half utilized for gym class and the other for a luncheon area for teachers. Rondeau asked, “If we were to move the first grade into the gymnasium and then use the empty first grade classrooms for the teachers’ luncheon, would that help with opening up space?” Despite saying that the acoustics wouldn’t be ideal for learning if half the gym was being used for gym class, Veneto called it “a good thought.” She also recommended either pausing gym classes or possibly moving gym classes outside even during the winter. “I don’t disagree, that’s something to think about,” Veneto said.
A question was asked as to whether the school had considered the use of portable classrooms. Veneto said the most common suggestion was whether or not tents could be used. He said that tents are a good option when the weather is nice but not during winter months. Veneto said that while portable classrooms are something they are looking into they are likely cost prohibitive. CARES Act funding has dried up as of December 31.
Wilhelmsen said that they were asked to hold to a 1.6 percent increase for the year during last year’s budget cycle. He said that normally they would present anywhere from a 3 percent to a 5 percent increased budget, noting that even that is quite lean. The Dennett took what Wilhelmsen called “significant advantage” of the CARES Act money, spending somewhere around $120,000. “We do not have a blank check to get students back to full, in-person learning at the snap of our fingers,” he explained. He also said that just because a need is identified and money found for that need, it doesn’t mean that the staff or other means to fulfill that need are available. “I’m down two staff members right now and I’m trying to fill those positions,” Veneto said of the shortage of available candidates. He also referred to the school as being one staff absence away from the building not being able to function. He called it “a challenge every single day” just to make sure there is an adult in front of children.
Parent Angela Wilbur said she would like to share her perspective as a licensed clinical psychologist. “I’m hearing a lot about busing and lunches and teachers’ health and welfare which are all extremely important but I have yet to hear anything about the children’s mental health,” she said. Wilbur said that since the beginning of the pandemic, mental health referrals have increased over 500 percent. “Wait lists are full, inpatient units have no beds, outpatient providers, which I am one of, are caring for patients who should be hospitalized, suicide rates have almost doubled, overdose rates are astronomical, kids report severe depression, debilitating anxiety, isolation, and self-harm. Pediatricians are treating rapid increase referrals in insomnia, sleep issues, headaches, and G.I. issues. Social anxiety has increased, behavioral issues have increased, those who were school phobic before have regressed, prescriptions for antidepressants and other psychotropic medications have risen over 30 percent. Many of these kids have never presented with mental health issues ever before.”
Wilbur said that just as there is a gross shortage of teachers, that same shortage exists for mental health providers for children. She called it a mental health crisis and said, “These children are resilient but they can’t continue like this, this has gone on for too long and it is unfair to ask them to continue on like this.” Wilbur said that due to her profession she has had countless families reach out for resources saying that the word most often uttered regarding their children is that they are “suffering.”
Veneto responded to Wilbur saying, “I know I’m speaking the truth when I say that the social and emotional component of this whole pandemic has been paramount in every one of our staff meetings. Your sentiments are well shared.” Wilbur stressed how much she knows the Dennett staff care for the kids but added, “I need the plans to reflect that priority of their mental health… I hear so many obstacles and barriers and I know that so many of those are real but there has to be solutions within this.” She said that she was worried about relying on mitigation from vaccinations that likely won’t occur for another month and won’t be fully effective for several weeks after that.
Fourth grade teacher Ann Walker, who has been at the Dennett since 2001, said, “I have been teaching for 28 years now and this is the hardest year I have ever had.” Walker said the first and foremost concern of all teachers following the closure in March was not academics but the social and emotional welfare of the children.
She said how proud she was of the people she works with including the School Committee who she said has been working countless hours to do what’s best for the children.
“If it were that easy, we would have done it, we would have had those children in the building,” Walker said. “Our town has had more in-person time whether it be in the building or interacting with an adult online than most schools in the area,” she continued. Many other districts have not offered learning time with teachers on remote days but rather asynchronous work only. Walker called the parents “heroes” and stressed that the School Committee, the teachers, Principal Veneto, and the parents all have the same goal.
One parent questioned the length of time in between regular School Committee meetings. Wilhelmsen pointed out the busy schedules of administration including the Superintendent who attends all School Committee meetings within the larger Silver Lake district. “If we need to meet to do something and to take action that we can’t deal with either by having a meeting like this where we’re updating parents or by not having to have a decision by the School Committee and meeting offline in separate sub committees, I mean we’re going to do that.”
Citing his six years on the Committee and his initial plan not to continue with the Committee, Wilhelmsen said, “I don’t not get it… I was going to be done… but then COVID hit and I felt it was really important to be able to help in any way that I can to shepherd us through this; it’s not just me, I’m only doing a little tiny piece of this.” He continued, “I spent more time in July on the School Committee than I spent in the six years prior.” He mentioned the additional time spent by Veneto and the teachers working full-time over the summer as well. “We’re committed to this and we’ll do what we need to do,” he said.
The next meeting of the Plympton Elementary School Committee will be on Monday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. where a plan for more in-person learning will be presented and discussed by the Committee.