TEWKSBURY — The School Committee met for a special meeting on Aug. 6 to vote on a reopening plan for the Tewksbury Public Schools. The five School Committee members, along with business manager Dave Libby, assistant superintendent Brenda Regan, and superintendent Chris Malone, sat spaced six feet apart from each other in a classroom at Tewksbury Memorial High School, while the meeting carried live on Tewksbury Television and the town’s YouTube channel.
Chairperson Keith Sullivan thanked parents, students, teachers, and staff for all of their input and understanding in working toward a solution to get students safely back into the classroom, and reminded viewers that details for reopening still need to be worked on.
Sullivan predicted that all three modes of instruction — in-person, hybrid, and remote — will probably all be utilized at different times during the year.
The board unanimously voted to approve the school calendar only for students in accordance with new professional development guidelines. Since teachers will now have 10 days of professional development before school officially starts — in person or remotely — the new start date for school in Tewksbury will be Wednesday, Sept. 16.
Malone reiterated that the reopening decision is made at the local level, with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requiring each district to develop three plans — one for in-person learning, one for a hybrid model, and one for remote learning. The reopening task force, made up of parents, teachers, and administrators, voted for a hybrid model.
Malone noted that a large number of educators favored a remote plan. However, he also mentioned that much is subject to change as medical information and state guidance shifts over time. Feasibility issues will come into play, such as spacing students and serving lunch over an expanded physical area.
Malone also said that the district will have to be prepared to pivot models based on evolving statewide data.
“We’re in good shape to have in-person instruction,” said Malone, “but people are having a hard time... there’s fear. I don’t think any of that goes away with any model.”
Regan added that the district should aim to be proactive rather than reactive.
One resident called into the meeting and expressed concerns that teacher voices were not being heard by the committee and administrators. Sullivan said he had to “respectfully disagree,” that the School Committee is aware of the position of the Tewksbury Teachers Association, and that three TTA members are part of the reopening task force.
Committee member Shannon Demos, a Medford elementary school principal and former teacher, read a prepared statement reminding the committee that reopening will look different for different students, and the district will constantly need to reassess the status of the pandemic.
“The social-emotional and physical wellbeing of all students is at the heart of this decision... We need to plan to start slowly and ease our way back in, instead of having to do the opposite. These three plans for me are hard to pick from because I don’t think it’s a good cookie cutter for all students.”
Sullivan added, “I’m a simple math guy... I can already see that regardless of what path we go down with these three plans, a large amount of this community isn’t going to be satisfied with whatever we’re going to choose. I want the community to understand that there’s a host of things that are going to contribute to my decision today.”
Another resident called in to comment: “My question is for Chairman Sullivan. I’ve noticed that he’s had his mask off almost the entire time he’s been speaking, and I’m wondering how a child is going to keep their mask on for a full day when you guys aren’t even able to do it for the entire meeting.”
Sullivan said that because of CDC guidelines, he’s not required to wear a mask.
“It’s more communitive [sic]. We’re in a big room here, I want to make sure people can hear me,” he said.
The resident responded, “I think it’s going to be very hard for a second grader to keep a mask on all day when us as adults can’t even do it. It just struck me as odd... that during the meeting we’re not even able to do it.”
TMHS teacher Conner Bourgoin called in to clarify whether masks would be required in schools or not. Sullivan said masks would be required.
Committee member John Stadtman read a prepared statement.
“If a teacher can’t be comfortable in a classroom, how can students feel comfortable in that very same setting?” he asked.
Stadtman spoke about different reopening strategies across the world and urged the committee to follow advice from public health officials such as Dr. Anthony Fauci. He also mentioned that student activity can’t be monitored outside of the school building.
“We don’t have the luxury of quarantining kids,” he said, noting that he favored a staged reopening.
Committee member Jamey Cutelis said that any reopening decision should be guided by science with consideration to the impacts on families, especially the elderly. He also noted that Tewksbury cases are currently low, but would have to be monitored in the future. He motioned for approval of the three model plan, with a focus on the hybrid model.
John Stadtman and Shannon Demos voted no, and Scott Wilson, Jamey Cutelis, and Keith Sullivan voted yes. The district will continue to develop the details for the three plans to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The next meeting of the school committee is scheduled for Aug. 19, 2020. Residents wishing to comment may find the call-in number on their screen and on the meeting agenda on the town website. The meeting may be viewed on Comcast channel 22 and Verizon channel 34.