Priority on Plan for In-Person Return to School

            New Superintendent of Schools Mike Nelson made clear in his address to the Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55 that no less attention will be given hybrid or remote-learning plans for return to school than what he says the commissioner of secondary education for the state is instructing: to prioritize an in-person return.

            The school year like no other has become the summer like no other, as districts all over Massachusetts scramble in the dark while awaiting the guidelines that will ultimately decide how their children go back to school this fall.

            In the meantime, individual districts have been told to have three plans formulated by July 31, when it is anticipated the state will have its say.

            “There’s a strong urging for school districts not to make a decision in terms of what model they plan on moving forward with until early August,” said Nelson, speaking for the first time as superintendent of schools during the July 15, special, remote access meeting of the Joint School Committee. “I know that may seem daunting and ambiguous, but what I’m encouraging people to do is say, ‘What do we know right now? What does the guidance say right now?’ Thinking about the framework and the major themes within it, we really start planning for multiple options so that when, as we move forward and the summer marches on, we can make more concrete decisions with informed planning that has already taken place.”

            The immediate result is a building-based subcommittee that will meet on Wednesdays, and several derivative subcommittee groups that will report back on established priorities including facilities, food services, technology/remote learning, and medical safety.

            Nelson said he planned the next day (July 16) on meeting with elementary school representatives in like roles, and anticipates “a long summer of numerous, numerous subcommittee meetings.

            “Obviously this work is paramount and is something we must be doing right now,” he said.

            Internally, said Nelson, there have been meetings with the principals, Facilities Director Gene Jones, Food Service Director Jill Hennessey, school nurses, teachers, union presidents, school committee members, and administrators in an effort to create several plans based on alternate scenarios and potential, state-imposed guidelines.

            Nelson reported that the state recently released a 32-page document outlining return-to-school guidelines and special education, but still called the current process, “planning for the unknown at this point.”

            Region-side member Tina Rood is neck-deep in the subcommittee, having come into the Joint School Committee meeting directly from the first meeting for the reopening of school.

            After describing the building-based subcommittees that would meet at the high school and junior high, Rood made a pitch for help and was thrilled to learn that one of the Joint School Committee’s newest members, Frances Kearns, brings key experience that at first will be directed toward facilities management.

            Kearns, who alluded to a prior meeting with Nelson, referred to her background in biomedical engineering and facilities risk assessment and offered to serve the subcommittee “as you need.”

            “Awesome,” said Rood, as Nelson made sure the Joint School Committee understands the eagerness with which Kearns has offered her experience. As the point person in establishing subcommittees, Nelson confirmed he has already appointed Kearns to the Facilities Subcommittee group that is part of the building-based subcommittees.

            “I was also thinking food service and health,” said Rood, enthused over the addition of Kearns. “With that kind of background, that’s awesome. Thank you so much, that sounds great.”

            While Rood anticipates several meetings per week over the next few weeks, meetings for entire ORR building-based subcommittees will be held on Wednesdays at 3:30 pm, and Rood said she expects those meetings will continue right into the school year as needs continue to materialize or as state guidelines are changed.

            Transportation is among a number of issues yet to be addressed by the state, according to Rood.

            At the start of the meeting, region-side Chairperson Cary Humphrey welcomed Kearns, who represents Mattapoisett, and Margaret McSweeny, representing Marion, to the Joint School Committee as newly elected members. Both expressed thanks, to which Humphrey replied, “We’re excited to have you.”

            Also welcomed aboard after a break into and return from executive session was the vote to approve Howard Barber as the new assistant superintendent of finance and operations for the ORR School District.

            Howard has over 12 years of school business administration experience, including town, city and regional experience. Nelson introduced him as a certified accountant and procurement officer, and a well-established officer within the Massachusetts Association of School Business Administrators who will be serving as the association’s president for the 2020-21 academic year.

            “We are extremely grateful to be welcoming him to our team and to start talking about a transition plan,” said Nelson.

            In a prepared statement, Barber told the meeting he is “looking to having some fantastic and some great opportunities not only over the short term but obviously also in the long term, and looking to build some great relationships with many of the individuals that I’ve had the opportunity over the last few weeks to speak to in individual meetings, in group sessions with respect to departments, site visits with respect to the principals, members of the various committees as well as even the bargaining groups.

            “I’m extremely grateful to have this opportunity. I want to thank everyone for voting to get us into this great position to hopefully moving forward to a great and long relationship.”

            Nelson thanked members of the hiring committee, including Rood, who serves Rochester and ORR school committees, Mattapoisett Elementary School Principal Rose Bowman, ORR Junior High Principal Silas Coellner, Director of Human Resources Suzanna Cunningham, Marion and Joint School Committee member Nicole Daniel, ORR Director of Facilities Gene Jones, new Mattapoisett School Committee member Carly Lavin, Mattapoisett Town Administrator Mike Lorenco, Marion Assistant Town Administrator Judy Mooney, and Rochester Town Administrator Suzanne Szyndlar.

            Union-side Chairperson Shannon Finning recognized the meeting, albeit a specially scheduled one, as Nelson’s first in his new job as superintendent and expressed appreciation for his leadership thus far in the building of the team that will lead the ORR School District into its next era.

            Nelson also broached the topic of racism in schools and discussed the Zoom meeting recently held by the Joint School Committee with representatives from Tritown Against Racism.

            “I thought it was a very candid, respectful and open conversation and the beginning of hopefully a partnership in terms of moving forward to being actively anti-racist school community,” he said. “Since that meeting, I reached out to the three leaders just to thank them for being part of the solution and supporting and collaborating with us moving forward. We did set up a virtual meeting that just occurred the last week or two where we just had more conversation in terms of just getting to know each other, learning about what they’re doing from an agency standpoint and then sharing what we’re doing from a school district standpoint. We did make an agreement to communicate on a bi-monthly basis and as needed. Then I shared with them that one of our main priorities right now is to focus and examine what our current policies are and what are currently policies are not. Typically or historically, we have not met in the summer for policy meetings, but we did set a policy subcommittee meeting… for August 11. That is a public meeting. I have consulted with the school district’s legal team, sharing our vision to do this review of our policies and what policies we may need, but I think it’s an important next step to guide our work moving forward in the short term and the long term.”

            On behalf of his business, Humphrey donated 1,000 facemasks to the school district. Region-side member Jim Muse made a motion that the committee “gratefully accept” the donation.

            “I have to thank the owner of our company… for doing this,” said Humphrey. “It’s a challenge we’re going to have to face as a school district, and I’m hoping other businesses are going to jump behind this because – of course we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next two months, but we have to be prepared for whatever.”

ORR Joint School Committee / Superintendency Union #55

By Mick Colageo

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