On Monday, August 3, Plympton School Committee chair Jon Wilhelmsen hosted an informal, virtual question and answer session regarding the reopening of school at Dennett Elementary. This was not a school committee meeting. Wilhelmsen told the fifty plus parents and teachers assembled that comments made were his own and not those of the school committee unless otherwise specified. Dennett principal Peter Veneto was also in attendance.
Wilhelmsen began by giving a quick overview of the preliminary plan submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) last Friday, July 31. Per DESE’s request, the plan consisted of a model for remote learning, a model for full in-person learning, and a model that was a hybrid of the two. The final, comprehensive plan will need to be sent to DESE by August 10. The separate school committees will need to vote to approve the plan prior to that date. Each committee will vote independent from one another, meaning Halifax Elementary, Kingston Elementary, Plympton Elementary, and Silver Lake Regional could all choose different models.
Wilhelmsen emphasized that the remote learning plan will be the cornerstone of whatever model is selected and noted that it will not look like what he referred to as the “crisis education” that occurred during the spring. He also said that all three plans must follow a consistent schedule as it is vital that they retain the ability to move from one mode to another as seamlessly as possible. The school committee had decided against any in-person plan that would involve 3 feet of social distancing instead insisting upon 6 feet until Massachusetts enters Phase 4. “I don’t think three feet is safe; I don’t think that we want to take that risk,” Wilhelmsen explained. Buses will only be at 32 percent capacity and additional bus runs will be prohibitively expensive. If in-person learning resumes, new protocols for pick-up and drop-off will have to be established.
Parents and teachers were then allowed to ask questions. Someone asked why the committee would elect to delay implementing a hybrid plan in favor of beginning school remotely. Wilhelmsen said that the school committee is fully in support of getting students back in person but noted, “we want to do this thoughtfully, we want to do this carefully, and we want to do this right.” Even if school begins remotely, it does not necessarily mean that all children will be at home. There may be a possibility to bring children with high needs into school or perhaps the kindergarteners who could benefit from in-person initiation into school. Of the kindergarten class, Veneto said that one benefit for them would be that they don’t know anything else so the changes may not seem as unfamiliar to them.
There were a number of questions regarding remote learning including if there will be a specific learning management system (LMS) used. Wilhelmsen said they will be using Schoology which he noted was superior to Google Meet which was used in the spring. He said they were still figuring out how to get everyone trained on the new LMS. Wilhelmsen said that while they do anticipate some supply chain issues, they have already been purchasing additional chromebooks for student and staff use. Wilhelmsen and Veneto said they have done their best to stay ahead of technology needs in order to ensure that teachers have the tools they need. Another parent asked what happens if they have a hard time getting their children to cooperate remotely. Wilhelmsen said that there will need to be a lot more communication between parents, teachers, and students in order to help with that. He also assured parents that there will be more engaging content than in the spring.
Another parent asked, “If we go to a fully remote model, will all learning be synchronous or will there by asynchronous instruction for working parents?” Wilhelmsen and Veneto confirmed that any learning plan that involves remote education will involve both synchronous and asynchronous learning. Also asked, “If a family decides to go full remote, will they still be part of the Dennett community or doing some off the shelf program state-wide?” They were assured that they will still be part of the Dennett community.
Several other questions were asked regarding the hybrid model. Any hybrid model selected will involve multiple cohorts of students. Cohorts A and B would attend school on alternating schedules with Wednesday remaining a fully remote day for all students. Cohort C would be those electing to be fully remote and Cohort D would be students designated high needs who would be eligible to attend school 4 days a week. Wilhelmsen said, “To the best of our ability, our goal is to keep children in the same family in the same cohorts.” One parent asked, “Wondering if you have a child on a 504/IEP that goes 4 days as cohort D, do siblings stay with them in the same cohort even if not 504/IEP?” Wilhelmsen admitted to not having thought of this scenario and said it would be explored.
Asked about how pull out services will be handled, Veneto responded, “we will be handling this and we will be doing it in a safe manner.” Yet another question, “If the students on IEPs are grouped together how will you ensure a Least Restrictive Environment for them?” Wilhelmsen and Veneto said they don’t yet have a plan for that but said it is being worked out. Another parent inquired, “If we have specific concerns about our own children with disabilities are we able to contact Mr. Veneto?” Veneto was quick to reply, “absolutely.” Wilhelmsen also offered that people were welcome to email him as well regarding any specific concerns (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Some questions centered around protocols in the event that there is a positive case or exposure within the school. One of those on the call asked, “What is the policy for contact tracing if someone is diagnosed with COVID?” Wilhelmsen affirmed the need to have such a plan saying, “When we’ve written it, we will let you know. We will have one.” Piggybacking on the aforementioned question another person asked if the entire classroom will be quarantined for 14 days should there be a positive case in that class. They also asked if that person had siblings would they quarantine the sibling’s classroom as well. It was confirmed that such decisions would be part of the yet to be fully developed plan.
There were a few other questions including whether or not the option to have outdoor classrooms was being explored. Wilhelmsen and Veneto said that they were looking at the possibility but noted that Plympton had just been moved to a high EEE threat, complicating the efforts to get kids outside more. Those on the call also asked about kindergarten orientation and were told that while there would be some version of one, it would be different than in the past.
Other comments from the public were offers to help. Parent Darcy Kennedy said she runs three childcare centers and offered to provide insight on the removal of items and the relative success of such protocols. Michelle Ruxton said she reviews reopening plans all day long and offered, “what’s one more?” Veneto and Wilhelmsen said they were not shy to accept such help. Still someone else pointed out that Plympton is a small town and asked what parents can do to help get the kids back in school. They asked if volunteering in some capacity such as a bus monitor would be helpful. Wilhelmsen who called the suggestion “awesome” said that the school committee would explore it but did note that they wanted to be careful not to introduce more people into the school setting. Someone said their workplace was utilizing Litum contact tracing badges and asked if it was something the schools could potentially explore. Wilhelmsen said he thought it was unlikely due to the costs associated with it.
Wilhelmsen thanked those on the call for attending and said, “I’m really thrilled to have been able to do this because I don’t necessarily hear from you all the time… thank you for being understanding, I know this isn’t easy.” He also offered to hold another similar session in the future.
Wilhelmsen also told those assembled that since open meeting laws are quite strict regarding social media, if more than one member of the school committee comments on the same post, they are in violation of that law.
He said for that reason, the committee plans to designate a single member to answering questions as they appear on pages such as the Facebook group Friends of the Dennett.