TEWKSBURY — The Tewksbury School Committee met on Feb. 10, 2021, for a virtual meeting via WebEx.
The committee hosted business manager Dave Libby for their second FY22 budget workshop presentation of the year. Libby reviewed four major parts of the budget: salary, operating, capital outlay, and fixed costs, which are managed by the town.
He laid out new challenges in formulating the budget, including the tentative state budget, less predictable local revenues, a high number of leave of absences and one year hires, and operational uncertainty.
Libby also outlined potential coronavirus costs related to pool testing, remote learning, additional transportation, and future unknown leave of absence costs. He reiterated that focus areas include personnel, technology, and building improvements.
Overall, the budget shows a 2.58 percent increase in salary, operating, and capital outlay. Libby reviewed new grant funding opportunities available to the town, which could be used to address coronavirus related expenses and special education improvements.
In the months before town meeting in May, Libby will continue to work with building principals and department heads to continue developing the budget and react to changes as they occur.
The committee observed a moment of silence in honor of Town Counsel Charles Zaroulis and former educator Patricia MacDonald.
The committee recognized Tewksbury Public Schools nurses for their work during the coronavirus pandemic, including lead nurse Kelly Constantino, Mackenzie Coneeny, Amy Connell, Kathy Korslund, Deb Kraytenberg, Sandra Miller, Angela Reaney, Jill Robinson, Karen Rossi, and retired school nurse Elaine Walsh.
Superintendent Chris Malone thanked Constantino for “her guidance, her dedication and her ability to navigate DESE medical regulations. Really drilling down to what’s best for kids everyday has been such a significant reason why we’ve been able to educate students effectively in the district.”
Members expressed their gratitude for the nursing team’s compassion and dedication, and praised them for dealing with everyday scrapes and bruises on top of their coronavirus work.
“I have the best team,” said Constantino. “I couldn’t do it without them.”
Resident Rich Russo called in to share his opinions on sending students back to school in-person full-time.
“Students and teachers appeared to have adjusted very well,” he said. “The reality is the district has invested a significant amount of money to put safety protocols in place, and they all have worked.”
He asked the committee to ignore calls for the vaccination of educators and said he didn’t think pool testing would add any level of safety.
“I agree with a lot of what you said... we’re going to continue to work [with the unions],” said chairman Keith Sullivan. “We can’t have enough in person time with our students.”
In the superintendent and staff report, Malone noted that the reopening task force is working on formulating plans and strategies for bringing more students back in-person. The town’s 4.41 percent positivity rate brought the district from the red zone back into the yellow.
Malone said the lowered positivity rate is a good indication of safety in schools, and called for maintaining safety protocols that have proven to work, adding that a decline in cases could not yet be considered a trend.
Malone reported that Black History Month reources were recently sent out to families.
He congratulated TMHS guidance counselor Kennan Daniel for her nomination to the College Board’s Counselor Recognition Program. He also noted that the district recently hired two additional occupational therapists and one speech therapist, and said some spending came out of coronavirus grant money.
Malone is working with the Elementary School Building Committee to relocate the central district office out of the Center School.
He implored families to adhere to travel and gathering restrictions over February vacation.
“We want everyone to have fun, but we want them to do it safely,” he said.
Assistant Superintendent Brenda Theriault-Regan presented the annual school and district report card from the state. The report card tracks student achievement, teacher qualifications, and attendance, among other benchmarks. Regan announced that 90.4 percent of district teachers have been teaching in Massachusetts for at least three years, and 100 percent of teachers are licensed.
76 percent of students in 11th and 12th grade have completed at least one advanced course at TMHS, including dual enrollment, international baccalaureate, and advanced placement classes.
Regan also reported that the district is delivering an in-school social-emotional learning survey pilot program to gain data for the district and state to adapt social-emotional learning goals and curriculum. She added that the annual kindergarten information session for parents is available to view at youtube.com/TewksburyTV.
Dewing principal Terry Gerrish and Heath Brook principal Felicia Cenanovic said they were proactively contacting families they haven’t yet heard from, and explained that there will be virtual screening opportunities for preschool families.
In committee reports, member Jamey Cutelis shared that the new Pleasant Street elementary school project is on time and on budget, and the steel frame was recently finished.
Member Scott Wilson told the committee the Special Education Parent Advisory Council held a meeting in January and are planning for upcoming programming.
In her MCAS report, Theriault-Regan said that the district is in the process of sending out Next Generation MCAS information.
“We really tried to make it convenient for families,” she said, by clustering tests in the same week.
11th graders will be taking the 10th grade English test this year. Regan said there are still details to be planned as all students need to take the MCAS in-person at school.
The committee voted to approve the 2021-2022 school calendar, which identifies key dates including graduation and vacation weeks. The committee also reviewed the 2021-2022 program of studies for the high school, which contains new and improved courses.
Theriault-Regan announced that the new program includes a new AP World History course, a student support math lab, and guiding pathways for specific careers. The committee voted to accept the program of studies, praising the updates.
Malone gave a presentation about increasing in-person learning time for students. He noted the recent addition of a Wednesday in-person rotation, and emphasized the need to develop a plan for the future. Malone said that achievement benchmarks have been good and students have been keeping up with the curriculum; he praised teachers and family for the steady metrics.
He is working to keep informed of best practices used in neighboring schools, and invited parents to participate in an upcoming townwide PAC meeting. Malone said that the district reopening task force is working to incorporate stakeholder needs and concerns into future plans.
He added that many parents have reported their satisfaction with the remote learning academy, but emphasized that participating students will eventually return to in-person school; he noted that the RLA requires significant resources but can be maintained through the end of the school year.
Malone acknowledged that staff members want to feel safe at school, and praised teachers, aides and staff.
“We’re one of the few industries that has been in at work,” he said. “We’re invested in them,” adding that he felt staff will do better at their jobs if they feel safe in school buildings.
He invited parents and staff to share ideas about potential changes to school operations.
Malone outlined different barriers, challenges, and opportunities, underscoring the need to “shift the narrative from why we can’t to how we can.”
He said that staffing challenges persist, and transportation is still a significant issue. Malone explained that one of the biggest challenges is lunch, where students don’t wear masks and require supervision. He said there may be opportunities to install dividers and increase cleaning and staff.
Distancing remains at six feet and has been very successful. Malone said that many districts have been moving to three-foot distancing with no outbreaks; however, moving students closer together would create more close contacts if a student tested positive.
All students would be able attend school on the same day, but the district may have to bring in shields or purchase additional PPE. Malone added that he recently met with a vendor to pilot a pool testing program with support from DESE. While Malone said the program becomes very costly for the district after the six-week trial, he believes the investment is worthwhile.
Malone updated the committee on vaccinations for educators, saying that he felt one of the most disappointing aspects of the pandemic was that teachers have not yet been vaccinated. He recently sent a letter in conjunction with the TTA to urge Governor Charlie Baker to move teachers up in the vaccination schedule, but said it was ultimately out of the district’s control.
He added that the district is willing to allow the use of schools as vaccination sites. Malone emphasized that time is of the essence in creating an adaptive plan for the end of this school year and the beginning of the next, and predicted that the pandemic will be impacting education for 3-5 years.
“Every day that passes, every week that passes, we’re losing an opportunity to do something for these children,” added member Scott Wilson.
Sullivan asked members to begin working on their evaluations of Malone for a compiled report used in his June superintendent assessment. Member Shannon Demos asked for an update on extracurricular activities at a future meeting, and urged the board to begin discussing plans for senior activities.
The next meeting is scheduled for March 10, 2021. Residents wishing to comment may find the call-in number on the meeting agenda as posted on the town website. The meeting may be viewed on Comcast channel 27 and Verizon channel 34.