A wide-ranging number of topics were discussed during the Monday, November 2 Plympton School Committee meeting. Chair of the Committee Jon Wilhelmsen said that he had seen a lot of recent discussion on the Dennett Facebook page regarding a return to full, in-person schooling given the success thus far in keeping COVID out of the school. Wilhelmsen said that for his part, he didn’t feel that it should be considered until Massachusetts is at a Level 4, from the state perspective which would mean the development of either a vaccine or effective therapeutics. He said the only other way to allow for a full, in-person return would be to fit everyone into the building with 6 feet of social distancing – something that isn’t possible currently. Committee member Daniel Cadogan said, “If we didn’t do it a month ago when things were looking well, I think doing it now would be a really bad idea.”
CARES Act Funds
Wilhelmsen said of the CARES Act funds directed to the school, “the town of Plympton has been very gracious and very generous in trying to make sure that the Dennett has what it needs.” Thus far, $79,000 in invoices have been submitted. That funding went toward technology, PPE, HVAC repairs, air purifiers, hands-free paper towel dispensers, and a number of other COVID-related items. The Committee thanked the selectmen, the fire chief, and the town administrator for their support.
Speaking about a lack of available substitutes, Dennett Principal Peter Veneto said, “It’s been an incredible challenge…. Not just a Plympton/Silver Lake challenge.” He added that finding a funding source for a building-based substitute remains difficult. Despite putting feelers out into the community to see if those with availability and ability would volunteer time to substitute, there was no response. Wilhelmsen pointed out that without substitutes the Dennett will, at some point, be unable to hold classes.
While a portion of the funding could come from CARES Act funds, there are no assurances that that money will be available after the end of December. The money to pay for the substitute after December would likely have to come out of the Dennett budget which Director of Business Services Christine Healy described as “traditionally pretty tight.” Committee member Jason Fraser said that there is a small group in D.C. trying to make sure that CARES Act funds not spent in 2020 get carried over to 2021. The Committee voted to move forward with hiring a building-based substitute.
MASC Conference and MCAS Testing
The Massachusetts Association of School Committees MASC Delegate Conference will be held virtually this year on Saturday, November 7. A keynote speech will be available to all members of school committees and administration. The afternoon is the delegate assembly, which is open to all members of school committees, but only designated members have the right to vote on behalf of their school committees. Fraser was voted in as the delegate for the Plympton School Committee during Monday’s meeting. “The point we’re really trying to push is looking at the MCAS, especially for this year, not be held at all for any purpose considering what our kids have been through and what our teachers have been through,” Fraser explained. Fraser said that when he first made the proposal, he expected some pushback, but instead other delegates are now pushing for a four-year moratorium.
Curriculum Coordinator Presentation
Curriculum coordinator for Grades K-6 Melissa Farrell gave a presentation to the Committee regarding the FY 2021 budget. Farrell said that there has been a significant cut in Title I funds from 2018 to now. The impact to Plympton specifically, however, has been relatively insignificant. The main impact has taken the form of cuts to professional development. Savings in the Title 1 budget will be used to provide summer programming for students that could most benefit from it.
Farrell also provided a curriculum overview for the district. This year marks the second year of the new math curriculum. Farrell said that they are working backward by grade level to address the social studies curriculum. Sixth grade is officially teaching ancient civilization outside of the pilot program this year. Instructional technology is being implemented in 5th grade social studies. Third grade social studies has also been addressed since Farrell said the implementation of a new social studies textbook was an easy fix. The new textbook aligns with the changes to Plimoth-Patuxet.
Farrell also touched on Parent Academy, something she referred to as a resource for remote and hybrid learning. “The idea was that in the spring when we went remote, everything and anything was free. If we were going to go into the fall and still have a remote or hybrid model, I felt that it was my job as the curriculum coordinator to have a resource that would fit ELA, math, science, and social studies, and social emotional k-6. In essence, that website represents sort of a balanced approach to make sure that everything is covered under whatever circumstances we were,” Farrell explained. She also said that the website includes additional resources for parents to utilize that are high quality, don’t contain advertisements, and have been vetted.
Farrell told the Committee that the Reading Street ELA curriculum that has been used for the last 8 or 9 years is disappearing after next year. She said that many teachers have been wanting to switch to something new for years as they see a variety of different ways to teach students and would like different resources to support that. Farrell said that it could cost $500,000 to implement a district wide curriculum, a number that is up from just a few years ago. She said one possibility would be to split the cost between two fiscal years with purchases being made in June and July. The subscription to the science curriculum is set to end in fiscal year 2023 but Farrell said the staff feels that they can create their own using instructional technology resources.
Farrell spoke highly of Instructional technology saying that regardless of whether we are in a pandemic year or not, much of it including the use of IXL, should be sustained. She also lauded Newsela, an online platform made up of various articles and often used for social studies. Typing Club, Mystery Science, and Lexia were also mentioned. She did note, however, “our kids still need to have books… I feel like there’s a balance.”
Farrell also told the Committee that she is still trying to assess what the impact of the school closure in the spring was on student learning. “Still trying to be the best that we can be with data to understand our students,” she assured them.
Technology Director Presentation
Silver Lake Technology Director Steve Pellowe also gave a presentation to the Committee regarding budget needs. Pellowe said that there is a need to replace the current phone system. The department is also in need of another technician as requests for technology help was triple what it would be in a normal year. Pellowe said that by the end of the year, the department would be supporting over 10,000 devices across grades K-12. Fraser said that he would be in support of adding an additional 0.2 tech person to the Dennett budget.
Laptops were purchased for the teachers at Dennett using CARES Act funds. Pellowe said, “I do believe as much as I’m concerned about being able to support them [laptops], they really are a critical piece of equipment for our staff to have.” Teacher Ann Walker thanked the Committee on behalf of the staff saying, “it has made everything so much easier for us with our mobile classrooms… and just getting our work done at home… I really appreciate you listening to our needs.” A few docking stations were also purchased.
Pellowe also said that an additional 38 chromebooks were received by Dennett a few weeks ago with 1,450 more coming to the rest of the district that week. “I will sleep a little bit better knowing should we have to go full remote, we have what we need to support the students.”
Veneto began his update saying, “Considering that none of us have ever taught during a global pandemic, I think that all of us are doing absolutely terrific.”
The Committee learned that teacher Bea Reynolds will be retiring at the start of 2021 after more than twenty years at Dennett Elementary. Veneto spoke of the huge impact she had on not only the staff and students but the town as well. Fraser added, “Bea Reynolds is the best… she is a gem and she has made Plympton and Dennett a better place for having been there.” His sentiment was met with a chorus of agreement.
Veneto told the Committee that air movement testing had been done at the Dennett. There were several issues that were found that need to be addressed. Veneto said that as a result they have spent more on HVAC than what would typically be spent at this point in the year. Veneto commended Matt Durkee for his assistance with building related fixes.
Superintendent Update and Enrollment
Superintendent Jill Proulx provided an update on enrollment at Dennett Elementary as of October 1. Total enrollment at the elementary level is 209 compared to 226 last year. Plympton students at the middle and high school levels total 190 this year compared to 196 last year.
The most jarring decrease was found at the kindergarten level where there are only 30 students enrolled compared to 54 in last year’s class. Proulx said that several parents are electing to “redshirt” their kindergarten age children in the hopes that next year will be a more normal year. Veneto said based on surveys, etc. he was expecting 42 rather than 30 students at that level this year. Proulx said it is a possibility that next year’s kindergarten class could be an extraordinarily large one.
Additionally, Proulx said that seven students are being homeschooled this year compared to 0 last year. Two students transferred out to private schools while six more transferred out to parochial schools. Proulx said the data for those attending charter schools was still not available.
The Massachusetts Association of Superintendents is growing increasingly concerned with the number of students transferring out to either homeschool or attend private school. “It’s a concern that we have as our funding is often tied to our enrollment numbers,” Proulx explained.
Plympton’s assessment is down by two-tenths this year whereas Halifax and Kingston have both increased by one-tenth. Plympton is also down six-tenths of a point in shared costs.
Proulx also told those assembled that mid-November will be the deadline for parents electing to switch from either the full remote model or the hybrid one as the next trimester begins on December 9. There is concern that if too many people elect to change from full remote to hybrid, there won’t be enough space within the school (or buses) to maintain proper distancing.
As of the Nov. 2 meeting, Proulx said there had been no positive cases of COVID at the Dennett. She did, however, review the protocol should that change. The principal and the school nurse will notify close contacts. The nurse will notify the Board of Health and the nurse leader will contact the Department of Education.
Proulx also reminded the Committee that the CDC guidance on what qualifies as “close contact” was recently changed from 15 minutes to a cumulative 15 minutes of exposure. This could alter how many people would need to quarantine should there be a positive case in the school.
Should it be a snow day or remote day?
Regarding the possibility of potential school closures, Proulx said, “It’s important for the public to know… we rely on the expertise of health experts such as epidemiologists to help guide us in those decisions.” She also said that Cohort D, which consists of highest needs learners, will be prioritized for in-person learning to the greatest extent possible.
The Commissioner announced recently that school districts may elect to have remote schooling days in lieu of snow days.
Fraser said he was in favor of the idea as long as advanced notice could be given and curriculum materials sent home with students to be done asynchronously at home. Wilhelmsen wondered aloud if it would be easier for parents to deal with a snow day or a remote day and asked Veneto if he could get some input from parents before deciding one way or another.
Wilhelmsen wins MCAS Div.III award
Proulx also read some correspondence from the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) awarding Chair of the Plympton School Committee Jon Wilhelmsen with the MASC’s Division III All State School Committee Award for 2020.
The award was in recognition of all of Wilhelmsen’s contributions to the district as well as his guidance as the district deals with the pandemic. Proulx said, “We appreciate your advocacy and your hard work.”
For his part, Wilhelmsen credited his fellow Committee members saying, “It is also a testament to all of the work everybody on this call does on a regular basis.”