The Nov. 23 Halifax School Committee meeting began with a request by committee member Summer Schmaling to hold further meetings in person. Schmaling said she found the virtual format distracting and voiced her opinion that certain participants could be in person while others could participate virtually. “It’s hard to communicate with each other… I just find it an ineffective way to do business,” she explained. Committee Chair Gordon Andrews said he understood that the format wasn’t ideal but explained some of the hurdles standing in the way of in person meetings. He said he would look into resolving the issues prior to the next meeting.
Discussion on Full In-Person Return
Superintendent Jill Proulx opened the discussion on the regulations from the state and their impact on the possibility of a full, in-person return to school. She referenced Governor Baker’s early November press conference where he urged schools, where feasible, to return to full, in-person learning. Proulx cited several issues with the state regulations including the need for social distancing on buses and at lunchtime. Funds and space must be available to meet those requirements.
Of the social distancing requirement Proulx said, “more students will mean less social distancing; six feet is still recommended by the state as well as the CDC and three feet is the minimum set by the state. At this time Halifax has been able to maintain 6 ft of social distancing.” Proulx said that she asked Principal Kayne Beaudry, Assistant Principal Brian DeSantes, and Director of Business Services Christine Healy to look into the feasibility of a full return.
Healy said that in order to provide transportation for all students with proper social distancing, five additional buses would be necessary which would be the equivalent of $800 a day. Healy also noted the likely difficulty in obtaining both the buses and drivers. Andrews said there was nothing in the budget that would allow them to come up with the $800 a day necessary.
DeSantes addressed the issues surrounding lunchtime saying that they can hold a maximum number of 44 students in the cafeteria with necessary distancing and the largest cohort they have is 43. He said that kindergarten and first grade are currently eating lunch at the same time though the kindergarten students are eating in the multi-purpose room. Cleaning and transition times must also be built into the lunch schedule. “So, unless there’s a change on the 6 ft requirement for taking their mask off when eating, that’s pretty tight there as well,” Andrews said.
A parent spoke up during the public participation portion of the meeting, asking why a full return isn’t being looked at more seriously. Proulx cited the difficulty that is posed by the state’s regulations. Andrews said, “I know we’re not giving people what they want and what our students need because of these regulations. We didn’t put these in place but we have to abide by them. I think the busing is the biggest hurdle that our school system has both at the elementary level and at Silver Lake… and then there’s the financial implications of that.” Schmaling angrily said that Governor Baker’s statement was irresponsible given the impossibilities that school committees and school districts are up against. She said that getting the kids back into school full-time is the Halifax School Committee’s ultimate goal, “I just want parents to know that we… as a committee… want that.”
President of the Halifax Teacher’s Association Stephen Ruisi spoke on behalf of the teachers saying that while they would love to see a return to full, in-person learning, it is “a balancing act of health and safety and the quality of education.” He continued, “Unanimously we feel as a union of teachers, 6 ft of social distance is a must and hybrid is the only path forward.”
Reports of Standing Committees
Andrews reported on the negotiations subcommittee saying that they have reached an agreement with the teacher’s union. Ruisi said that the teacher’s union had voted to accept the contract but that they were just waiting on a rough copy of it.
The PTO reported that the virtual book fair was ongoing. They also said that they are still encouraging teachers to file wish list items. Additionally, they are always encouraging more parent participation.
Beaudry reported that enrollment was holding steady at 568 students. He said that there was a lot of positive parent feedback from the virtual conferences that were held in late October, citing the flexibility offered as one of the perks. Nearly 85 percent of families participated.
Beaudry also said that Ruisi was able to pull off the annual turkey trot at the school. The event was held over two days and included all cohorts, even those that are fully-remote. The food drive is another annual event that has been able to thrive in spite of the pandemic.
Beaudry said that families faced a decision to switch learning models or stay with their current model for Term 2. He said that requests to change from either full-remote to hybrid or hybrid to full-remote were minimal as were requests to change busing.
Beaudry also reviewed some important upcoming dates. December 10 marks the start of Term 2, Term 1 report cards are released on December 21, Holiday break begins December 24, and students and faculty return to school on January 4. He also said that as of right now, students should plan for MCAS in April/May of 2021.
Healy said, “There really isn’t much to report, we’re doing pretty well right now… I think you’ll see signs of cracks in the next few months.” According to Healy, one of those “cracks” could be rising utilities costs from open windows, air purifiers, and other electricity uses.
Food Service Director Megan Ahrenholz presented to the Committee saying that two out of the three-person cafeteria staff at Halifax Elementary would be retiring in the near future. One suggestion was to have Ahrenholz take over the administrative piece including the menu planning, the reporting to DESE, and the handling of the audits. “The School lunch world keeps getting more and more difficult with DESE and the Federal government getting involved,” she explained.
Benefits of having all of the Silver Lake towns under the same cafeteria management would include continuity of services across the district, shared costs for bids, and a single point of contact for parents of children in more than one district school.
Ahrenholz proposed the creation of a new nutrition manager at Halifax Elementary with set hours and days and a slightly higher pay scale than a normal aide. They would perform the normal functions of a lunch aide but would also be responsible for managerial type tasks including the day to day paperwork. The Committee agreed to discuss the proposed positions further in executive session so as to move quickly on the hiring.
Special Education Presentation
Administrator of Special Education Marie Grable gave her annual presentation regarding special education programming, the budget, the status of the grants and the direction of special education in the district. She defined special education as specially designed education, at no cost to families, to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability. She emphasized the difference between equality and equity saying that the goal was to have equal access to the same opportunities.
In FY21, 18.3 percent or 104 students in the Halifax district are in the special education program. Grable said this number has stayed relatively steady over the last couple of years. The percentage is slightly higher than the state average and higher than the overall percentage for Silver Lake which stands at roughly 15 percent. The breakdown of those 140 students includes 87 at Halifax Elementary, 20 in the integrated preschool program, 14 in district sub separate programs, and 19 in out of district placement (ODP).
The cost for ODP is $1,857,409 and $473,800 for transportation. The State’s special education Circuit Breaker program provides reimbursement for a portion of costs above $48,000 per placement. Other incoming funds that help the district maintain their special education programming and services include the largest grant, Fund Code 240 which is for $174,642 for Halifax. The majority of these funds are used to offset the cost of the paraprofessionals working directly with the special education population. Grant 262 in the amount of $6,722 targets supports for preschool students ages 3 through 5. Grable also said that two grants that had disappeared in 2018 have returned. Those include Fund Code 274 in the amount of $7,722 and Fund Code 298 in the amount of $1,113.
Grable also gave an overview of the various programs. The Developmental Learning Center (DLC) and Pathways, the Structured Learning Center (SLC) or Therapeutic Learning Center (TLC), and the Language Based Learning Center (LBLC). The programs exist for ages 3 through 22 beginning with the integrated preschool and running through the relatively new Pathways program for young adults.
Grable also addressed the effects of COVID-19 saying, “all of our students have regressed; all of our students have struggled with the school closure from March.” She said compensatory services were being explored if needed due to the regression that occurred in the spring.
She continued, “The difference between the remote plan in the spring and the learning program in the fall is that we really need to ensure FAPE (a free, appropriate education for all of our students). She said the services that are outlined in a student’s IEP are expected to be implemented this fall as they are written in the IEP despite looking different.
Grable also reviewed some upcoming goals including opening another preschool classroom as the slots for students with disabilities are full. Her final slide of her presentation was a shoutout to the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) and Committee Chairs Heather Eddy and Michael Cecere.
Technology Director Steve Pellowe presented on the technology budget for Halifax for FY22. Pellowe broke the budget into four main areas/preliminary requests which were school management curriculum (software and subscriptions) at $30,080, technology management (software and subscriptions) at $30,520, supplies and repairs at $7,400, and technology hardware and assistive technology at $22,700. Pellowe said that included in those numbers are several items that are for remote learning and have not been there in the past.
Pellowe said that Silver Lake has agreed to fund a technology paraprofessional position through the end of the year for additional assistance as their department’s requests for help have tripled over this time last year. Andrews asked Pellowe if he had any specific requests should further CARES Act funding become available through the town and Pellowe said that he would fully support laptops for the teachers as was being done in other schools in the Silver Lake district.
Curriculum Coordinator Presentation
Title I Director and K-6 Curriculum Coordinator Melissa Farrell also presented to the Committee. Farrell showed a historical overview of the Title 1 grant showing the continuing decrease from 2018 to 2021. In FY18, Title I funding was $335,867 and in FY21 it was $156,013. Farrell commended Halifax for funding a needed math position in their budget and said that Halifax’s Title 1 money will be used to fund two reading interventionists positions. She said they were having difficulty filling the positions but noted that they would continue to be posted. She said that unlike previously thought, they will have the allocation available for summer programming this year.
Farrell said they are in the second year of a new math curriculum. Farrell also said they are implementing a pilot for the online program Lexia for Halifax grades K-5. Grade 6 is using a new ancient civilizations program. There is also a new anti-bullying, social and emotional curriculum for all grades across the district. Farrell also created a website called “Parent Academy” which highlights resources available to parents during this difficult time.
She then turned to budget considerations saying that the school is in their last year of the current ELA program which she called “outdated.” “Budget implications for ELA are all over the mark,” Farrell said. She continued saying that she has quotes as high as $500,000 for a 7-year district implementation of a literacy program. Of that $500,000, about $157,000 would come from Halifax which Farrell said she would try to split between two years’ budgets.
Vote on Continuation of CARES Act Positions
Proulx told the Committee they would need to take a vote on whether or not to continue funding several positions that were funded through the CARES Act. That funding will run out at the end of December. The Committee needed to decide whether to continue funding them through the end of the school year. Those positions include a long-term building substitute, three long term substitute classroom teachers, and a long-term substitute custodian. Andrews said that while the school budget wouldn’t support those positions, the Halifax Board of Selectmen (of which he is one) declared a state of emergency which allows them to deficit spend.
“If we didn’t make any changes at the special town meeting at the annual town meeting then we would deficit spend, but if we make an adjustment to the line at the special meeting then we should be able to add that amount of money or some amount of money necessary to cover those costs for this school year. So, there is a way to pay for that outside of the CARES funding,” Andrews explained. The Committee voted unanimously to fund those positions in the amount of $116,293 through the end of the school year.