The Plympton School Committee met on Tuesday evening, Sept. 8 to provide an update on school reopening plans.
Dennett Elementary School Principal Peter Veneto said, “Our back to school plan shifted slightly in that the school committee initially voted for us to start full remote but as I suspected, once we had staff members in the building and we got down to the planning… my teachers want students in front of them and we feel that we can do it safely.” The first day for most students will be Wednesday, Sept. 16 and it will be a full remote day. Cohorts B and D will report to school in-person on Thursday, Sept. 17 and Friday, Sept. 18. Kindergarten screenings will take place on that Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The first day of school for kindergarten will be Monday, Sept. 21. That Monday will also be the first day of in person learning for Cohorts A and D.
Committee Chair Jon Wilhelmsen said, “The reason we voted for a phased-in hybrid approach was to provide Peter and the teaching staff with the opportunity to consider all the options which they did and this appeared to be the best option for facilitating getting folks back to school.”
Veneto said the administration took into account the information from parents when creating cohorts. “We did have to do a little bit of tap dancing… basically A-K would be in Cohort A and the rest of the alphabet Cohort B. That became a challenge because we were trying to honor families’ wishes about keeping their children within the same cohort so inevitably, when you have a district our size, there were some errors along the way,” Veneto explained.
Committee member Jason Fraser asked if there was room built into the cohorts for students that wish to opt back into some in-person learning midway through the year. Veneto acknowledged that the cohorts are very tight as-is. “Much like our master schedules, with these cohorts, it is a very, very delicate balance,” Veneto said. He continued, “If there was to be a lot of shifting, we would have to get even more creative.” Fraser also asked Veneto what he referred to as a “dad to dad question” saying, “You would feel comfortable with your own children in your school come September 17?” Without missing a beat, Veneto responded, “absolutely, no question.”
Veneto also provided the committee with an update on changes to staff. Two staff members retired while several more decided not to return to work due to concerns around COVID. “I completely respect the opinion and the judgment of the people that decided they were uncomfortable coming back,” Veneto said. There will be a new librarian, music teacher, and kindergarten teacher. As of Tuesday’s meeting, Veneto said he still needed to hire a new art teacher as well as a part time kindergarten aide. He said he felt confident that the positions will be filled prior to the start of school.
A Health and Safety Advisory Committee has been established to deal with issues related to the pandemic. The ad-hoc committee is made up of Wilhelmsen, Fraser, Veneto, several teachers, the school nurse, and a parent with expertise in the area. The formation of the committee will ensure a two-way communication that includes those with their boots on the ground in the day to day implementation of new safety procedures and policies.
According to Fraser, one of the committee’s concerns was with the state’s ability to provide data on COVID infections in the area in an accurate and timely way. Fraser said that himself, Wilhelmsen, and Veneto had previously met with the Emergency Management Team, including the Board of Health, where he says they were told, “contact tracing isn’t necessarily the 21st century science that we would all hope it would be… we’re all going to have to be advocates at the local level.” Fraser stressed the importance of parents notifying the school nurse regarding any COVID cases within their family. Due to Plympton’s small population, it would only take 8 cases to move Plympton into the “red” risk level which could necessitate a school closure. Fraser said that since 8 cases could be two households with no connection to the school, the committee will be exploring an alternate means of interpreting the data regarding school closure.
Students and staff will be required to complete an attestation each day that verifies that they are in compliance with the CDC checklist of COVID risks. If not completed on time, parents will be sent a reminder within 15 minutes. “We realize, and its almost purposeful, that this is inconvenient. It’s supposed to make you stop – knock you out of your routine a little bit and really consciously think about your own health or your child’s health before you send them to school each and every day,” Fraser explained. He also pointed out that for most families it will only be twice a week and that doing so helps to ensure the health of the community.
Superintendent Jill Proulx read through a list of revised policies. She said the policy regarding visitors to school will remain the same except she will have the ability to amend the policy should the need arise. Proulx also spoke on the policy regarding communicable diseases saying that while it will be similar to the current policy, it will allow the superintendent to “establish protocols for tracking student’s contacts as a means of locating others from whom the student may contract or expose other persons to COVID 19.” Proulx noted that the policy will be in line with privacy laws. Proulx also noted changes such as the stance on attendance. She said that while in the past, perfect attendance would be celebrated, it won’t any longer as individuals are encouraged to stay home whenever symptoms of illness are present.
The policy on masks in school was also discussed. The school is asking that all students be put on buses with masks on regardless of their age. Bus drivers in Plympton will be supplied with spare masks. Some masks will also be deemed inappropriate for school. These include either homemade or store-bought single ply masks, masks with valves, and gaiters. If a mask is deemed unacceptable, it will be replaced with a school-supplied disposable one and the caregivers will be contacted. If after multiple attempts to facilitate proper mask wearing fails, the school will reserve the right to ask that a student be moved to remote only.
“As we continue to move forward in opening the building, we’re going to be keeping our eye on the data but we’re aware that that data is actual people and individuals with family and people who care about them. I never want it to get lost that each number that you see on the TV every night when the state does its reporting is a person that has a family,” Fraser told those present at Tuesday’s meeting.
The Plympton School Committee meets again on September 21.