Doherty Explains Reopening Guidance

Reading, MA — Superintendent of Schools John Doherty reviewed what he referred to as “initial” guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) with the School Committee on Thursday night. The guidance, the result of the recommendations from a 54-person committee, was provided to aid school districts in their plans for reopening schools in the fall. Doherty reminded the committee that changes and additions to the guidance will be ongoing throughout the summer, but that plans will be finalized by mid-August at the latest.

According to Doherty, state guidance emphasizes the goal of returning students to school in September as its primary objective. To achieve this goal, the state education commissioner has provided what Doherty referred to as “guardrails” for safety. He went on to stress that putting the guidelines into practice may look different in different districts, or even at different schools given each school’s context. Doherty stressed that the situation will require patience on the part of parents, students, teachers, and administrators. 

Doherty explained that the district is required to submit three plans to DESE as to how it will follow the guidelines in reopening. Doherty promised to continue to update the committee and the community on those plans, recognizing that he will not always have all the answers. Plans will attempt to balance the competing health risks with the educational and emotional consequences for students if schools do not open. Most educators and parents have indicated that being in school is best for their students. “There is no substitute for in-person instruction.” Doherty declared. He continued, stating that to open in the fall schools must adapt to a “new culture of health and safety” which includes hygiene and handwashing, face coverings, physical distancing, reduced interaction between groups, and children and staff remaining at home if sick.

The plan Reading Public Schools will adopt will likely include students above grade two being required to wear a mask with all adults wearing masks as well. Students in the younger grades will be encouraged to wear masks. Doherty did suggest that there would be “mask breaks” during the day so that people would not have to wear them for eight hours straight. 

The plan will also call for desks to be facing forward in classrooms, distanced at a minimum of three feet apart, possibly repurposing cafeterias and other alternate spaces to accommodate students as well. Each room in each school will have to be evaluated independently to determine capacity, as sizes and configurations of rooms vary greatly. Students are likely to stay with the same classmates all-day long including eating lunch in their classrooms. Doherty recognized the challenge this type of scheduling could pose on the middle and high school levels.

Screening will likely not be required upon entry to schools, nor are temperature checks recommended at this time. Schools will be relying on families to keep ill children at home. The district will recommend that all students and staff get flu shots this winter.

Doherty also reminded the committee that plans will need to be developed for special populations such as English language learners.

The district will also develop plans for a “continuum of learning” which will include the possibility for hybrid learning and for remote learning as well. Both of these may have technology purchase impacts. Doherty stated that the goal is to “nimble” as situations may change rapidly.

Doherty’s review included highlights from the parent, student, and staff survey results about the spring and looking to the fall. These results were wide-ranging, from the preference for in-person learning to the need for clear expectations, and the desire for uniform online platforms to be used across the district.

The School Committee also formally presented its annual evaluation of the superintendent. The evaluation, which School Committee member Thomas Wise said was, “Perhaps the most difficult thing we do as School Committee members.” was generally positive, with Doherty being commended for his work and agility managing the COVID-19 shutdown, his consistent hard work, and his assembling of an “excellent” team. 

According to the review, Doherty also made “significant progress” in his professional goals. Note was made of the “tremendous” progress made on the development of curriculum guides for the district, which are on pace to be completed on schedule by the end of the year. 

Areas of growth for the superintendent included two-way communications, delegation of tasks, and retention of quality staff. It was also noted that Doherty’s skills in building consensus during conflict could be improved. School Committee member Shawn Brandt noted that “Dr. Doherty is open to our feedback.” Continuing that, “Even in the short course of the three months [of COVID-19] there has been improvement.”

In the light of the announcement by Doherty that he intends to leave the district when his contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 school year, the committee voted 6-0 not to extend his contract beyond that point. As to why the vote was needed, Chair Chuck Robinson reminded the committee that the contract with Doherty stipulates that such a vote should be taken. “As a committee, we need to fulfill our obligation to the contract.” Robinson shared. After a 75-minute executive session, the committee returned to regular session and voted 6-0 to give Doherty a 2.855% raise in salary to $193,000 for the coming year.

The School Committee also engaged in a discussion regarding the search for a new superintendent. Consensus seemed to be reached around the concept of hiring a consultant firm to aid in the search. Committee member Erin Gaffen stated that the hiring of a firm would be “worth the investment to take an all-encompassing and thorough process.” Brandt referred to the idea as a “nominal investment” given the size and importance of the position. Wise continued that he believes that a thorough process will be better for the district, and better for the final candidate. Robinson will work on guidelines as to what the committee may be looking for in a consultant and present it to the committee.

The School Committee adjourned at 10:45 pm.

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