There was a virtual, joint meeting between Silver Lake Regional School Committee and Union 31 on Thursday, April 23 to discuss the remote learning program that has been instituted district-wide in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic. Representatives were there from each of the three towns’ school committees.
Superintendent Jill Proulx led the presentation on remote learning. A survey was sent out to secondary students (grades 7-12), staff, and parents to gather information on the first few weeks of remote learning. Proulx said that herself and Assistant Superintendent Ryan Lynch were looking for trends in the data from the survey. Seventy-five percent of the staff completed the survey with 826 responses received overall.
Proulx said that overall the staff feels supported but face challenges such as monitoring the progress of their students in addition to simply missing their students. The range of responses were also varied with some parents and students eager for new material while others felt otherwise. Lynch said that when asked if they would be able to move forward independently if their teacher were to introduce new content, 47 percent of students responded yes. About one-third of those surveyed said they would not be able to do so without additional support. Lynch pointed out that students surveyed reported the workloads to be heavier than their parents who were also surveyed. Students surveyed said that the work veered toward the too much side of things. Most parents were clustered somewhere in the middle between too much and too little. Many parents also expressed frustration with working from home while also supporting their child regardless of their age. Additionally, many older students are now working more hours, largely in grocery stores, and are feeling overwhelmed trying to maintain both a job and their schoolwork. Proulx noted that the students who responded did so appropriately and thoughtfully.
According to Proulx and Lynch, the qualitative data from the survey showed that there should be a focus placed on consistency in both communication and expectations. Proulx and Lynch also met virtually with all building principals to get a sense of what’s working in order to expand upon it and make it consistent for all schools in the district.
The Silver Lake leadership is also working on answering frequently asked questions and distributing sample schedules. All groups surveyed will be surveyed once again in about three weeks. Proulx said their biggest concern is trying to meet the needs of all the children.
Proulx also said that the Department of Education would likely be providing additional recommendations about remote learning by early next week that could include some summer school guidance. According to Proulx, Silver Lake will be waiting for further guidance from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) before making any big changes to their distance learning program.
Some Committee members asked questions of Proulx including how the district is addressing students who are either not participating or participating at lower levels. Proulx said that first steps include the teacher reaching out and if that fails, a counselor or principal attempts to make contact. As a last resort, the school resource officer is sent out to do a wellness check. Committee members also wanted to know if the goal of remote education was to prevent regression or to continue to educate. Proulx said that a major focus was preventing regression adding, “I think one of the things we continue to struggle with is to what extent new material should be introduced and how to introduce new material.”
Another question was in regard to how teachers were expected to be educating. Proulx said that teachers should explain things verbally and visually to whatever extent they can in the given environment rather than just posting a list of assignments. “In some respects, it is like we are all first-year teachers again, but good teaching remains good teaching,” Proulx explained. Proulx also emphasized that if something is not working for a parent or student, that issue is best communicated directly to the teacher as they are best equipped to make a quick adjustment.
Following Proulx’s presentation the Committee members engaged in some debate about the level of structure that needs to be applied to the remote learning program. Some on the Committee felt that the expectations for the students should be elevated with students being “in class” online at regular times, particularly for those in grades 7-12.
Silver Lake Regional High School Principal Michaela Gill said that as an educator and mother to three young children she sympathizes with the difficulties such a strict schedule would impose on teachers and other working parents. Gill emphasized the importance of both flexibility and mental health.
Committee member Gordon Andrews, who said his wife works at a private school, said that he would also like to see some more structure in the form of a daily plan for all students but said that he understood Gill’s take. Kingston School Committee member Jeanne Coleman said flexibility is key and stressed the importance of keeping the parents’ and students’ mental health in mind. Coleman said that she allows her ten-year-old to sleep in so that she can finish her younger children’s schoolwork earlier. Proulx said, “I would just comment that we do have different needs across the district; as you can see, we do need to be flexible.”
Silver Lake Regional Committee Chair Jason Fraser said that the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) has started compiling things that are working for various school districts and sharing them. Fraser, who is on the Board of Directors for MASC, said that while on a call with many other school committees, none were claiming to have this all figured out yet. A motion was made and voted through to support Fraser in his bid to become secretary of the MASC.
Committee member Jon Wilhelmsen asked Proulx what would happen if the pandemic continued into the Fall. Proulx acknowledged the possibility of a second wave of the virus and the need for social distancing and said that she feels that the things transpiring now would better prepare the district to handle remote learning, etc. should it come to that again.
Proulx was also asked if parents or students would be able to pick up personal items from the buildings. Proulx said that doing so now would not be safe as any additional people in the building increases both contact and potential exposure. If an essential item has been left behind, Proulx recommended contacting the building principal.
Fraser touched on the budget toward the end of the meeting acknowledging that everything is up in the air at this juncture. “Things need to happen, but we need to move with information not conjecture,” Fraser explained. Fraser acknowledged that staffing cuts would likely have to be made and Regional Committee Vice Chair Eric Crone agreed saying that many districts have already had to make cuts and furloughs. “There’s a pretty significant chance that we are going to have to cut deep,” Fraser said.
In the only non COVID-19 related business of the night, Director of Business Services Christine Healy gave an update on the new bus contract. The current bus contract is set to end on June 30, 2020. Healy said that atop the priority list for the new contract were newer buses, additional cameras, updated safety equipment, and an enhanced radio system and routing software. Healy said that she had 8 inquiries to her bid with one response back. The new contract would be a five-year contract with two one-year extensions. There would be a four percent increase year one, a two and a half percent increase years two through five, and a four and a half percent increase after that. There will be 33 buses with five 2019 buses and 28 2016 buses. All buses will be equipped with at least two cameras.
The Committee voted to approve the bus contract.