A three-hour plus virtual Silver Lake Regional School Committee meeting on Wednesday, August 5, had roughly 230 participants including school committee members, administration, staff, and parents. After considerable debate among the committee members, two votes were taken regarding the reopening plan for the fall. Committee member Leslie-Ann McGee moved to approve a hybrid model. Member Eric Crone asked for an amendment to approve a phased-in approach to the hybrid model with an initial two weeks of remote learning to start. Three committee members voted in favor of Crone’s motion – Eric Crone, Laura Tilton, and Mike Antoine. The motion failed. The committee then voted on McGee’s motion which need a majority to pass. It passed with a majority with committee members Laura Tilton, Mike Antoine, and Ed Desharnais voting no. The result was the school committee voting to have Silver Lake Regional High School and Middle School begin the school year in a hybrid model which will employ a mix of in-person and remote learning.
At the outset of the meeting, Jennifer Chaffins spoke on behalf of the SLEA saying that 73 percent of the Silver Lake Regional staff preferred a remote return to school. She told those assembled that 40 percent of Silver Lake staff is either at high risk for coronavirus or lives with someone who is high risk.
Superintendent Jill Proulx gave a presentation on the results of the most recent survey sent to parents and caregivers. Across all schools there were 2,010 responses for a 56 percent response rate and across just the middle and high school there were 899 responses for a 55 percent response rate. For the middle and high school, 45.6 percent of parents were in favor of a return to full in person learning with 3 feet of distancing, 40 percent were in favor of returning to school with 6 feet of distancing, and 14 percent were in favor of full remote learning. Based on a pressure test performed by building principals, a full, in-person return would not be possible with 6 feet of distancing. At the previous school committee meeting, Proulx had recommended the hybrid model to the committee.
High school principal Michaela Gill and middle school principal Jim Dupille presented sample schedules. As was discussed at previous meetings, the preferred hybrid model would consist of Cohorts A and B who would attend school in-person on alternate schedules. Cohort C would be those wishing to opt into a full-remote option and Cohort D would be those students deemed high needs and eligible for 4 in-person days a week. Even if a student is eligible for Cohort D they do not have to attend school in-person all 4 days or even at all. Wednesdays will be a remote day for all students. The basic schedules for hybrid and remote will be identical to ensure as seamless a transition from one mode of learning to another as possible.
Committee member Laura Tilton brought up a concern that had also been raised earlier in the week during a question and answer session for Dennett Elementary parents. Tilton inquired if Cohort D would interact with both Cohorts A and B in some capacity during their in-person stints. The administration confirmed that based on the individual needs, this would occur with at least some of the students. Tilton’s concern was the added cross contamination amongst cohorts.
It was a concern shared by Chaffins who said in the chat portion of the remote call, “I am concerned about the exposure for Cohort D – our most vulnerable students… while they are no doubt the individuals we want to prioritize for education, if they have an inclusion class or any class within the general education setting, they will be exposed to both the Mon/Tues group and the Thurs/Fri group.”
The committee’s opinions were varied. Desharnais and Tilton were strongly in favor of a full remote option. “Something that jumps out at me from Jill’s slides is where it says the remote option is the safest option possible,” Tilton said. She stressed that she would be hesitant to move to a hybrid model without some kind of public health benchmark. Desharnais said, “safety is more important than anyone’s inconvenience.” The preference for a full, remote option seemed to be the prevailing one among the staff who were active in the chat portion of the remote meeting. Those in favor of the remote plan emphasized that the quality of remote learning would be significantly better than what was provided in the spring.
Committee member Christopher Eklund said that he was in favor of giving families choice and pointed out that electing to go full remote took away that choice. Someone in the chat asked if staff would be given the option to elect to be fully remote.
Unfortunately, time prevented most of the staff’s questions and concerns from being addressed. This was upsetting to many of the teachers in attendance and they expressed that in the chat, asking if staff would be given any say. Crone offered to them, “Teachers were on the reopening working groups. Once we vote our plan, we move on to impact bargaining.”
Eklund said that the state is putting forth a remote learning platform that can be employed by those electing to be remote despite their district’s decision to go with another model. Both Plymouth and Pembroke are planning to ascribe to the state’s remote offering. One version will offer a learning management system only and another option will offer a learning management system with teaching support. Proulx said that the guidance on the plan had only just been released that day.
Both Crone and Antoine were in favor of the phased-in approach. They were advocating for the first two weeks of school to be remote for the majority of students. This, they argued, would allow the staff additional time to further work out their in-person plan as well as allow Silver Lake the opportunity to see how other districts handled the first two weeks of in-person learning.
Under this plan, Crone and Antoine were asking that Cohort D as well as CTE students be prioritized for in-person learning, returning on September 16 while Cohorts A and B start in-person learning in early October.
The majority of the committee was in favor of the hybrid approach as evidenced by the results of the vote. Crone pointed out that while they were voting on the comprehensive plan to be submitted to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) on August 10, they were not implementation plans. He pointed out that they are not going to have all the answers until those implementation plans have been established.
Proulx perhaps summed things up the best at nearly 10 pm with the remark, “It’s been a long March.” Committee Chair Paula Hatch thanked everyone for their attendance and “tremendous thoughtfulness.”