Much of the Plympton Elementary School Committee meeting on Monday, Jan. 25, was spent discussing the viability of adding more in-person learning time to the current hybrid model at the Dennett Elementary School. The meeting which was held virtually had nearly 50 participants with many staff and parents in attendance. The larger than usual attendance was due to the recent discussions at the middle school and high school level regarding the potential for in-person learning on Wednesdays.
Currently, Wednesdays are a remote day across the district for all but some of the highest needs learners in Cohort D. Teachers and staff have used Wednesday mornings for planning as well as professional development.
The plan proposed during the most recent Silver Lake Regional School Committee meeting would have students in Cohorts A and B attending school in-person on alternating Wednesdays. While most on the regional committee were in favor of the plan and asked the administration to work on the logistics, there were some members who voiced concern for the complications such a plan might pose for both families and staff. Scheduling and childcare could become complicated for families with students spread out across the district, particularly if the elementary schools chose not to adopt the same plan as the middle and high schools. Additionally, teachers will be losing valuable planning time.
With regard to greater in-person learning time, Chair of the Plympton School Committee Jon Wilhelmsen said, “As a school committee and as an administration this is something that we are thinking about all the time.” He acknowledged that the current learning models necessitated by the pandemic are not ideal particularly for the youngest learners. “Unfortunately, some of our largest grades are our youngest grades which poses an additional stress,” Wilhelmsen explained.
While there have only been a small handful of positive COVID cases at the Dennett and no evidence of in-school transmission, Wilhelmsen explained that the greater issue has been with close contacts needing to quarantine. He said that he would be concerned that were the school to reduce the physical distancing requirement from six to three feet the number of close contacts needing to quarantine would increase causing even greater disruption. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends six feet of distancing while the state requires just three. Wilhelmsen said the Committee is steadfast in maintaining the full six feet of distancing.
President of the Teacher’s Association and fourth grade teacher Ann Walker spoke to the ways in which the staff is currently utilizing the remote Wednesdays. “These Wednesdays have been crucial for the success we have had over this time. We have taken this time and planned for every scenario possible… we have to make sure everything we do is both digitized and ready for students to work on in-person,” Walker explained. She also said that work has to be planned several weeks in advance and noted that teachers have even had to deliver materials to families that couldn’t make it to the school. Walker said the time has also proved valuable for learning the necessary technology to succeed in the hybrid model.
Dennett Elementary Principal Peter Veneto also spoke to the difficulties of bringing more students into the building more often for in-person learning. “The biggest obstacle that I foresee is lunch,” Veneto said. While the state allows for three feet of distancing, six feet is required while eating lunch thus reducing the seating capacity. The staff at the Dennett was also described as lean and cited as another potential obstacle to more in-person learning. Veneto also noted that bringing students into the building on alternating Wednesdays would likely only add an additional 9 days of in-person learning time to the school year.
Parent Danielle D’Angelo, who was quick to express gratitude to the teachers, administration, and staff, asked if the Committee and others had considered an out of the box approach to the lunch dilemma suggesting that other spaces such as the gym could perhaps be utilized. Veneto assured D’Angelo and other parents on the call that the space within the Dennett has been utilized in the best ways possible to ensure maximum capacity while still maintaining distancing. “I do think we’ve looked at this creatively and from a lot of different angles and have sought opinions from a lot of different people,” Veneto said.
D’Angelo also asked about the possibility of parent volunteers to help off set any staff shortages. While Veneto said that he was open to any suggestions, he noted that the school has had to cut down significantly on parent volunteering this year in an effort to reduce the number of people in the building and in turn help mitigate any potential spread or exposure.
D’Angelo stressed that many parents have growing concern over their children’s emotional and social wellbeing saying, “most of us feel okay in sending our children in at three feet with a mask.” Another parent spoke up saying she had heard that Sacred Heart Elementary School had reduced their distancing requirement from the CDC recommended six feet without many more positive cases than Dennett and without evidence of school spread. “I don’t think this Committee is interested in going below the six feet,” Wilhelmsen reiterated.
Wilhelmsen pointed out that as of the time of the meeting, Plympton had moved into the red risk designation. Communities with populations under 10,000, like Plympton, must have more than 25 cases in order to be considered red, or high risk. “There’s a lot that’s changing rapidly,” Wilhelmsen said referring to the new federal administration as well as the vaccine rollout. “Where we sit at the moment, I don’t see what we can do in the next two weeks,” he said. “Our goal has always been to provide as much in-person learning as we can,” he assured those present. Wilhelmsen also said that he was hopeful that the eventual vaccination of teachers and staff in Phase Two would provide the school with greater flexibility.
Parent Angela Wilbur asked about the hurdle posed by limited capacities on buses. She said that she had noticed that the pickup and drop off line was significantly greater than in years’ past indicating that more and more parents had opted to drive their children to school rather than have them take the bus. Wilbur suggested to the committee that perhaps the bussing issue is less of a barrier than previously thought. Veneto noted the way in which Plympton families had stepped up to the plate to provide transportation for their children but said that he was still required to “make sure we have enough room for every child every single day.” It was also asked if it would be possible to provide a waiver for the busing requirement. Committee Vice Chair Jason Fraser said that that option had been explored as far back as last April but it was determined that it couldn’t be done without a change to Massachusetts’ general laws.
Some of the parents on the call expressed what they felt to be a lack of communication on the part of the school committee and administration regarding what kinds of plans were being explored to further in-person learning opportunities where and when feasible. Both Wilhelmsen and Fraser apologized if there was a perceived lack of communication. They noted that school committee meetings are held on a regular monthly basis in addition to meetings of the Health and Safety Advisory Committee. Parent Michelle Ruxton, who serves on the aforementioned committee, stressed to her fellow parents the level of thought and concern that goes into how decisions will affect not just the schools but the home lives of Dennett families as well. Wilhelmsen also offered to host more informal Zoom sessions that could be posted to the Friends of the Dennett Facebook page.
Director of Business Services Christine Healy provided an update on the new playground to be built at the Dennett. Healy said they are working with firm Beals + Thomas to oversee the construction of the playground. After coming out for an initial site visit, the firm came back on January 19 to do a topographical survey. Once the results of the survey are in, the project will begin moving forward. Fraser said that he was appreciative of funds being allocated to hire them to ensure that the playground is accessible, safe, and long-lasting.
Fraser provided the legislative report saying that the pandemic had highlighted the need to reevaluate critical issues at the state level such as school start times and achievement gaps caused by summer vacations. Fraser said that research has shown that elementary age students should be beginning their days earlier and ending their days sooner whereas secondary students would be better off with later start times. Additionally, gaps in education caused by the pandemic have highlighted the need for summer school reform. Fraser said there is a push for summer school coursework to include social and emotional learning as well as enrichment opportunities in addition to the traditional academic courses. He also pointed to Australia where students attend school the full year. In lieu of summer vacations, students attend school the same number of days a year but have more frequent, shorter breaks with the shortest being just four weeks long. This prevents the regression that occurs over the summer. That lack of regression each year amounts to 2 to 2 and a half years’ worth of additional learning time for Australian students.
Fraser also told the Committee that the Governor would be coming out with the first version of the state budget this week. He said that sources told him the budget was not in as bad of shape as previously feared. Fraser said that he was also being told that schools would be held harmless for enrollment decline this year due to the circumstances posed by the pandemic.
Superintendent Jill Proulx spoke to that decline during her update saying that redshirting of kindergarten students this school year was not unique to Plympton as it was occurring throughout the state. Proulx also said that the number of students in Plympton being homeschooled this year had increased.
Principal Veneto gave a brief update on the state of affairs at the school. Math interventionist Maria Barlow replaced retiring fourth grade teacher Bea Reynolds. Recent Bridgewater State University graduate Paige Sylvia has been hired as the new math interventionist. He also said that they are in the process of hiring a new building-based substitute.
Committee member Amy Hempel said that the Community and School Association (C.A.S.A.) will be moving forward with selling raffle tickets for gift baskets. The baskets will be available at the Mayflower Mercantile shop in Plympton toward the end of February. C.A.S.A. Chair Sarah Prario said tickets will be available for purchase through Facebook, Venmo, and email.