TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury School Committee met last week on Aug. 19, 2020, to conduct regular business and address parent questions about the return to school.
Resident Michael Brewster called in to tell the board that he believes data-driven milestones should be shared with the public, “otherwise, I feel that there’s going to be continued chaos and emotions that are driving these decisions and brewing further divisiveness across the community beyond what exists today,” he said.
“We are currently in negotiations with all of our employee groups,” said chairman Keith Sullivan. “We want to make good decisions that are made on science, numbers, facts, and metrics, as opposed to fears or opinions... what we voted on was a model to start instruction. Obviously, we need teacher involvement and I know people are frustrated... I certainly have empathy but until we’re able to navigate that process, we’re going to have to see where we are with the staff.”
Another resident called in to ask about the district’s proposed hybrid schedule, an instruction model where an in-person cohort of students would attend school for four hours, then go home for lunch and then continue with more instruction online. The resident referred to a previous statement made by superintendent Chris Malone that the schools would be able to accommodate students for in-person lunch.
Malone said that feasibly, lunch could be served in-person, but at a cost to the school budget. Additional food service staff would need to be hired to feed students across different locations, and more custodial staff would need to be hired to clean eating areas.
Malone also noted that there are concerns with food allergies if students are eating in classrooms, and social emotional issues with students eating six feet apart from each other. Malone said the shortened day would keep students from having to wear masks for too long; additionally, the school may not have enough staff to support students in-person all day.
However, Malone said that the district is committed to a “highly interactive, highly teacher-involved remote portion... to make sure our students have success.”
Another resident asked whether students would have enough time to get home on the bus before restarting remote learning. Malone said transportation is going to cost the district more than ever and buses may need to make double runs, but students will not be sent home hours and hours after dismissal.
Transportation is still in the planning phases but the district is working with families to manage students coming home in the early afternoon. Afternoon lessons will be both synchronous and asynchronous to be interactive and engaging for students, but the district will be adapting lessons to be flexible for families who may need to work on lessons in the evening when parents are home. Malone said he has high expectations for what those lessons will look like.
A caller asked about after school childcare options. District partner Alphabest cannot run extended day out of the schools due to cleaning protocols and licensure restrictions, but the town is looking at other locations to host the program.
During Malone’s superintendent and staff report, he mentioned the recent extended year summer program held in-person for some special education students. Malone said the program was held with appropriate PPE and social distancing and was a great experience for students who attended.
Malone also mentioned that applications for the Voice of Democracy and Patriot Pen writing competitions will be available from principals at the Ryan, Wynn, and TMHS in the fall.
Malone said there are still issues to be resolved with regard to state-mandated flu shots, staffing issues, and negotiations with the Tewksbury Teachers Association.
A resident called in to ask what repercussions would be for students who cannot log in to remote classes on their own. Malone reiterated the district is working together with parents to make sure that students are getting the instruction they need while ensuring flexibility for working parents. However, metrics on attendance in some form must be reported to the state.
Assistant superintendent Brenda Regan said teachers are currently working on curriculum mapping for the year and doing training to gain remote learning skills. Regan asked parents to fill out the recently sent district survey so schools can start planning cohorts and transportation.
10 days of intensive training for staff will start on Aug. 31.
A parent asked how long students would be expected to be in front of a computer, especially young students.
Regan said, “We don’t expect any student to be on the computer from start to finish of the school day.”
She added that different formats of learning will be employed throughout the day, but a computer will be needed to access those lessons; additionally, the district plans to have students be in contact with a teacher live at least once during the day.
Another parent worried about young students, such as kindergarteners, not getting a full range of skills because they can’t be independent learners. Regan said teachers plan to front-load core content for in-person lessons, and will reinforce curriculum remotely with take-home kits in some cases.
Committee member Scott Wilson added the model the district starts with is unlikely to be the model used for the entire year.
“This is where we’re starting today,” he said. “The rest of the year will look totally different.”
One resident called in to say that “it feels like the teachers are calling the shots and not the parents,” and asked about transparency with demands coming from employee unions.
Sullivan directed the caller to contact the unions directly and declined to comment on their negotiations.
A caller asked about protocol for a positive case. Malone said the town health department will be implementing contact tracing procedures to handle the situation. Additionally, school nursing offices will have holding areas to isolate individuals who may have come into contact with the positive person.
Business manager Dave Libby spoke briefly about projects the district is working on, such as printing public health signage for schools and obtaining personal protective equipment for students and staff.
A parent asked how the district’s remote learning academy will align with in-person learning.
Regan said students will each be assigned to a teacher, with some synchronous and some asynchronous learning.
“It’s our absolute goal that students in the RLA are following the same scope and sequence of learning objectives and standards,” she said, but noted the format of instruction may vary between the RLA and in-person teaching.
Member Jamey Cutelis, a representative on the Elementary School Building Committee, reported to the board that construction is going six days a week on the new Pleasant Street elementary school, and the foundation will be going up soon.
The committee voted to accept the updated school calendar for 2020-2021. Sullivan ended the meeting by emphasizing the importance of providing the same quality of education during the pandemic as before.
“I just hope that we remain mindful and respect our neighbors,” he said. “We are doing our best to try and navigate this to what we think is going to be best for all our students, our staff, and our families.”
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 16, 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.