WOBURN - The city's School Committee recently concluded that the district cannot afford to slash preschool tuition rates in order to account to COVID-19-related reductions in classroom learning time for the 2020-2021 year.

During their latest gathering in the Joyce Middle School, the elected officials voted unanimously in favor of outlining in a letter to families their pricing policy position. Though ultimately denying at least one parental request for a discount, the School Committee promised to return any excess funding in the program budget at the end of the year.

According to School Committee member Patricia Chisholm, who chairs the Finance Subcommittee, local officials tried to find a way to offer some type of discount, but the programs at the Reeves and Shamrock Elementary Schools already essentially function as revenue-neutral offerings.

"The problem is because of what we have for teacher's salaries, we have to maintain the fees…We figured if at the end of the year there is a surplus, we will return that money," Chisholm explained.

According to the district's website, preschool tuition for the 2020-2021 school year, which includes enrollment in half-day sessions for 10 months, is $2,680. Last year, the monthly tuition rates — apparently set for children who attend classes for part of the year — were raised from $220 to $300.

Prior to the advent of the COVID-19 crisis last March, the School Committee had been toying with the possibility of expanding Woburn's preschool offerings, which presently includes a curriculum for both regular education and SPED pupils aged between 3-and-5 years old.

Though the district picks up the bill for SPED pupils — as required by state and federal law — school officials a little over a year ago agreed to join the ranks of neighboring districts that offset those mandated expenditures under an integrated preschool program. Under the model, the early education classes were extended to "neighborhood peers" — or pupils who upon entering kindergarten are likely to be classified as part of the regular reducation student body.

"We reviewed the program cows and income brought in from tuition. At this time, [that revenue] is insufficient to make any cuts," said School Committee member Dr. John Wells, explaining that substantial portions of the tuition money is used to pay the salaries of the city's 10 preschool teachers.

Presently, Woburn offers three preschool learning sessions four-days a week at both the Shamrock and Elementary Schools. The district's full-day program consists entirely of "high needs" student populations.

Meanwhile, the integrated program is broken down into morning and afternoon sessions at both elementary schools.

Prior to COVID-19, morning classes were held between 8:30 and 11 a.m., while the afternoon program began at 11:50 a.m. and ended at 2 p.m.

However, because of new public health protocols enacted in the wake of COVID-19, the preschool sessions have now shifted to a hybrid model that includes two days of in-person instruction and two-days of remote learning.

Morning and afternoon classes have also been shortened, with the a.m. sessions running from 8:30 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. and the afternoon classes taking place between 11 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.

The state's COVID-19 restrictions on school operations extend far beyond the city's early childhood education programs, as Woburn's entire student population is now spending less time in the classroom — whether virtual or otherwise — than is customary.

However, because the preschool program is somewhat unique in that parents pay tuition, the School Committee earlier this summer agreed to at least consider a fee reduction.

Last April, after the state shutdown school buildings across the state, Schools' Superintendent Dr. Matthew Crowley did agree to freeze preschool tuition bills.

At the time, early childhood learners were not being offered any type of virtual learning alternatives and the superintendent agreed it was wrong to be charging parents for services their children would never receive.

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