Director of Facilities Matt Durkee attended the Monday, Sept. 21 meeting of the Plympton School Committee. Durkee said that a lot of work has been done recently throughout the district and noted that an airflow exchange test was performed at the Dennett Elementary School. “The good news is that for the most part, the building is operating normally; we got good airflow exchange back on that,” Durkee said of the test. The test flagged certain deficiencies that are now being improved on. “Those improvements are ongoing if not already completed,” he said. An example of a deficiency was a restroom where the exhaust fans were not functioning properly; they have since been fixed. The music and art room were also flagged due to a faulty motor that is scheduled to be fixed this week.
Committee member Jason Fraser asked Durkee, “Are we using CO2 monitors as a proxy to give us an idea of air exchange or how are we monitoring how are HVAC units are handling the air exchange in the building?” Durkee answered that CO2 monitoring would be a separate test except for higher-level HVAC systems that might contain CO2 monitors within the system. “The air change per hour is measured by… it looks like a laundry basket that you put over the unit ventilator and your measuring how much air is coming in and your using that same mechanism at an exhaust fan… and measuring how much is being exhausted and a calculation gives you the air changes per hour (ACH).” Fraser said that he had heard of some people using the CO2 monitors as a proxy but said that he much preferred the air exchange testing that was described by Durkee.
An air quality test to measure pollen counts, mold spores, and CO2 had not been completed as of Monday’s meeting but, according to Durkee, remains a possible option. Air purifiers in the nurse’s office and medical waiting room have also been installed at the Dennett. Other physical changes include plexiglass installed at high traffic areas throughout the district including the kitchens. Touchless faucets have also been installed as have touchless paper towel dispensers as they become available. Social distancing signs have also been installed throughout the school. Regarding products that have been backordered, Durkee said, “We’ve been very fortunate to work with contractors and suppliers that have really pushed us up in line to receive some of these items so to that I’m very thankful to the companies that we have been contracting with.”
“I believe the Dennett is in really good shape, facility-wise.” Durkee did note, however, that the siding of the building will have to be addressed eventually as part of a capital plan measure.
Fraser gave a brief update on the plan for the new playground at the Dennett. The school has been working with consultant Joe Dufour of O’Brien and Sons and have received what they needed from him to move forward with an RFQ. Fraser said that the playground has, unfortunately, had to take a backseat to reopening the schools safely.
Fraser also provided the legislative update noting how difficult it is to be the legislative agent during an election year, particularly a contentious one. He said the State House has been relatively quiet as they are pursuing a lot of reelections across the state. The finalized budget should be ready sometime in November. While multiple watchdog groups are anticipating a $5 billion dollar shortfall, Fraser said there have been assurances that Chapter 70 will be level funded.
Principal Peter Veneto began his update saying, “The good news is that children are back in the building at the Dennett where they belong, and it’s been really a fantastic opening on a lot of different levels.” Veneto mentioned the 11 days of professional development that staff underwent prior to students returning. “I can’t underscore how important these 11 days were to help prepare our staff and for our staff to be able to work together to be ready for our students,” Superintendent Jill Proulx said.
“Everything has been rewritten, every one of our procedures from recess, to lunch, to dismissal… the people that have been impacted the most are the kids and quite frankly they have adjusted to everything just fine,” Veneto said. Veneto was quick to give credit for the successful opening to the teaching staff, support staff, and custodial staff as was Proulx. Veneto said that the administration has been mindful about trying not to overwhelm parents on any single day with a bombardment of emails or the like.
Proulx stressed the importance of community and caregiver vigilance in keeping the schools open. The administration has been in communication with the Board of Health and has been monitoring state metrics. She told the Committee that her last email through Parent Square included instructions for what to do if a student or caregiver tests positive. She also stressed the importance of staying home and notifying the school nurse or building principal if exhibiting symptoms of COVID, having close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID, or testing positive for COVID yourself. “It’s going to be a community effort in order to keep our students in school and I know that is important to everyone,” Proulx said.
School Committee Chair Jon Wilhelmsen said that several districts in Massachusetts have already had issues with a student attending school despite knowingly waiting for a COVID test or having already tested positive themselves. “If we have a case in the school there is going to be a certain amount of time that the doors are going to be closed for us to figure out what happened or didn’t happen,” Wilhelmsen said. “Hopefully it’s as short as possible and everything ends up being good but that’s the risk that we have,” he continued.
Fraser told the Committee, “Through my work with MASC [Massachusetts Association of School Committees] and my background in science, I helped develop a matrix just to try and determine what kind of shutdowns you have and when they would occur based on certain triggers.” He said the matrix is based off DESE’s guidelines regarding contact tracing or what Fraser jokingly refers to as “what if COVID.” “We’re keeping an eye on it and we’re also cognizant of the fact that several municipalities have reported back to MASC that the data the state puts out every Wednesday is not accurate per their own Boards of Health… While that guidance is helpful that comes from MASS DPH every Wednesday, we have to really lean on our parents and our own Board of Health and our own schools to keep our kids and our communities safe,” Fraser explained.
Director of Business Services Christine Healy provided the financial report. Healy said that herself and Wilhelmsen have been working with the town to secure CARES Act funding for the school. Wilhelmsen said that the process for securing that funding is difficult, noting that it takes an invoice in order to get reimbursement. A purchase order with a check will not suffice. Adding to the already convoluted process, many companies will only send an invoice for what has already been sent. The money allocated to Plympton through Plymouth County must be spent by the deadline. Whatever is leftover at that time will be returned to the County to be reallocated differently from that point forward.
Wilhelmsen said that the school has already made it clear to the town and the selectmen that there would likely be costs over and above the school’s budget which was trimmed as a result of the pandemic. “I don’t have a problem going back and saying this is a cost that we are going to incur,” Wilhelmsen said. He also said that he has already warned that utility costs are likely to be considerably higher than in a normal year.
Two potential uses for CARES Act funding that were discussed during Monday’s meeting include a long-term building-based substitute as well as laptops for teachers. Proulx said that in order to stay competitive this year’s rate for substitutes will be increased from the previous rate of $95 per day to $150 per day.
Wilhelmsen pointed out that while in a normal year a teacher, as anyone might, would more than likely push through minor symptoms in order to come into work, it won’t be safe to do so this year. Therefore, there will be an even greater need than normal for more substitutes. Veneto said that just in the first three days of in-person teaching, a substitute was needed every single day. “The current configuration of our cohorts right now, it is a house of cards, and it is very, very fragile,” Veneto stressed. He said that interventionists are stretched as thin as possible. He fully expects that staff absences are likely to cause a shortage of teachers, particularly with the advent of cold and flu season. Veneto said that the answer may end up being that students will have to be remote if an in-person teacher isn’t available to teach.
School Committee member Daniel Cadogan inquired about the feasibility of notifying parents early in the morning that their child’s school day is suddenly a remote one. For parents working outside of the home, the economic fallout of having to call out of work repeatedly could be significant. Cadogan was advocating for the additional expense to the community as he said the alternative would likely cause hardship for many families. “I just see this as a very small expense to mitigate for just the parents, just the families… there are a lot of families that aren’t going to be able to take that hit 6 or 7 times in a month.” Cadogan said. Wilhelmsen agreed saying that the cost of a building-based sub would equate to only roughly .33 percent of the total town’s budget. Wilhelmsen, who said there may be potential to use CARES Act funds to cover the cost at least through December, plans to speak to the town administrator about the issue.
Ann Walker attended Monday’s meeting on behalf of the Dennett teachers to advocate for the purchase of laptops for them. The teachers have found that the chromebooks being used thus far have many limitations that are making their jobs even more difficult. “Everyone in our building has been working overtime on everything… having these laptops would be much more efficient,” Walker explained. Wilhelmsen again said he thought it might be possible to use CARES Act money to fund at least a portion of the cost. Fraser, who is a teacher, said he has had access to a laptop for both remote and hybrid teaching and said he could not do what is needed on a chromebook. “If we can make their lives a little bit easier and that can translate into better lessons and less stress for them and for our students, I think it’s a great idea to do it,” Fraser said. Proulx said she would speak with Technology Director Steve Pellowe and ask him to put together some proposals.