April 7 Considered a Tough Target

            Officially at least, the Old Rochester Regional School District is aiming at a return to school on the state-prescribed April 7 date.

            Optimism, however, is sparse, and most of the concerns expressed to Superintendent of Schools Doug White during Monday night’s online-only meeting of the Old Rochester/Union No. 55 Joint School Committee were aimed at developing a plan for a potentially longer hiatus.

            The meeting, originally expected to include the formality of officially hiring Mike Nelson as White’s successor effective July 1, instead yielded other news including the fact that the 2019-20 school year will end no later than its 185th day for any school in the district. For ORR, that would be June 24.

            After snow days, ORR will not have to make up any other days missed due to COVID-19 aka coronavirus.

            The first four days since the March 13 decision to shut down schools (March 16-19) were categorized as snow days. “Those days are behind us,” said White, now working on setting up scenarios for the completion of the academic calendar and thanking school committee members for their support.

            Union-side committee chairperson Shannon Finning told the meeting that a “stomach bug” had taken her out of commission for two days – she said she does not have the coronavirus – and her inability to edit was the reason for the delay in announcing the expected contract for Nelson.

            Finning is part of the three-person negotiating team with region-side chairperson Cary Humphrey and committee member Michelle Smith. The next scheduled meeting of the Joint School Committee is June 11 so another meeting prior to June 11 will be set up to ensure a timely transition of the superintendent’s office.

            Nelson, the assistant superintendent through June 30, attended the meeting and commented on policy (more on that below).

            Most discussion surrounded concern about what happens next should ORR, in keeping with the vast majority of feedback sources, not return to school by April 7.

            The interim period has not included traditional classwork. Instead, teachers are sharing online tools for students to practice what they’ve learned. Participation is voluntary, and at present, there are no hard numbers available on levels of participation for different age groups.

            Staff has been asked to check email three times daily by mid-afternoon, check voicemail, be available to meet online via Zoom or Google Hangout. The staff has also been asked to reach out to students’ parents or guardians at least twice per week.

            Several members of the Joint School Committee voiced agreement that ORR will need a long-range plan if, as expected, the suspension of school outlasts April 7.

            Some cited the importance of “learning equity” and the maintaining of “that contract” with students, providing a platform for consistency across the board and keeping students “in learning mode.” Points raised included: Without a requirement, participation will fall off, and other schools are reportedly taking such steps.

            Heretofore, the expectations of students have been similar to summer assignments, but that will likely change without a return to the classroom on April 7.

            “I am all ears,” said White, hearing suggestions from the committee.

            Finning said that Comcast is offering two months of free internet essentials for low-income families with a two-hour waiting time for activation. Committee member Robin Rounseville told of a case in which that service was denied because the student was not registered for free or reduced lunch. Humphrey asked that the family’s identity be sought so the situation can be resolved.

            “I’m hoping and praying that we will be back in school in two weeks, but… this might be a nice drill to expose the areas we might work on,” said committee member Joe Pires, alluding to future scenarios of the suspension of school.

            Committee member Sharon Hartley agreed, noting her concern over the newness of the situation. “I hope we’ll have some plans for professional development as soon as possible. It’s hard, if you haven’t ever done these things before. It’s asking a lot,” she said.

            White reported from recent talks that the shutdown could be greater than three weeks and that educators statewide are strategizing on online learning opportunities and preparing a program. “If this environment is not going to be better in the next couple of weeks, we’re taking those steps and working on that,” he said.

            Hartley noted that some of the schools that are practicing online learning and having virtual classrooms have, in the process, cracked the code on solving snow days in the future and given school districts a new way to formulate academic calendars.

            The meeting also revealed behind-the-scenes efforts that continue to address the education-related needs in the community.

            In his report to the Joint School Committee, White cited the daily work of ORR cafeteria staff preparing 500 lunches last week and 135 more on March 23, the day of the meeting, for needy students.

            He also cited technological efforts that would put Google Chrome into 100 students’ hands by noon March 24, the custodians who work every day to clean out the buildings “deeper and deeper… we believe our buildings will be in a great position to address (students’ return).”

            White noted that all of the meetings of the administrative staff were being held live online via Zoom software.

            Nelson addressed ORR District policies in the Joint School Committee meeting, the need being to make sure they align to new legislation. The policies related to children in military families, those under foster care, the homeless, and school committee minutes. Nelson reported having reviewed the information and attended state trainings, telling the meeting that ORR’s policies all align and are all things that “we’re doing already” in those scenarios.

            The policy relating to homeless students deals with rights and services, the main difference being that students remain in their school of origin with an outline of transportation and additional support for which the district is responsible from fiscal and program standpoints.

            “I have no concerns in supporting the policies as represented,” said Nelson.

            White recommended that the Joint School Committee can vote to approve the “homeless” policy and bring back the other two policies for discussion.

            The policies relating to homeless students and school committee minutes were approved by both the region and union sides.

            Committee member Stefan Gabriel asked, regarding the policies that will be addressed at the Joint School Committee’s next meeting, if anyone will fall through the cracks. Nelson answered, “No, we’re already doing these things.”

            Nelson also reported on current efforts toward social-emotional behavioral support of students in need based on the changing environment, including the creation of a hotline. Nelson said, as information comes in, he will identify the appropriate clinical staff members to reach out, offering “support to kids who might not be on our radar when they are in the building” and continue to work with them on an ongoing basis.

            White said that homeschooling and special education were being discussed at a statewide level and seeking guidance from the federal level. There is a leaning toward pass/fail, and relaxed requirements will mean two places where MCAS is going to have to get relief.

            The 2020-21 academic calendar was approved on both sides of the Joint School Committee.

            While typically on the agenda at this time of year, the subject arrived like a door-to-door salesman in the middle of a family crisis. Nonetheless, the membership decided it prudent not to ignore it amidst the bigger fish currently frying.

            The result was approval on both sides of the committee for a slightly altered schedule that acknowledges the September 1 presidential primary and election day November 3.

            Typically, the first day of school, September 1 will be the first day for teachers with students reporting for classes on September 2. White noted that there was pushback against consideration for starting two weeks before Labor Day (Sept. 7).

            Another suggestion changes the Friday, October 9 (the Friday before Columbus Day) from an off day to a school day to make November 3 (election day) into an off day for students that could be used as one of the two full professional development days for faculty. The other full professional development day is January 16, 2021 (the Friday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as it has been). There are four half-days for professional development.

            Parent-teacher conferences will be held October 22-23 and in Mattapoisett on October 18-19. A two-week break for Christmas includes a half day on December 23 and a return to school on January 4.

            There has been some discussion about pushing away from April vacation toward a March vacation, but White said that is a bigger discussion for another day.

            “I’m just worried about getting through this week’s calendar,” he said.

            It was suggested in the committee meeting that the academic calendar should be posted with a disclaimer.

            Minutes were approved with minor corrections for January 29, February 29 and March 5 meetings.

ORR/Union No. 55 Joint School Committee

By Mick Colageo

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