Reading, MA — By a vote of 6-0, the School Committee accepted the first reading of two policies related to its operations during the coming school year on August 20. The committee had scheduled continued discussions regarding the school district’s reopening plan, but Superintendent of Schools John Doherty read the following statement, which had been issued at 6:30 pm via email and social media, explaining the change in agenda:
“Throughout this pandemic, our focus in returning back to school has always been the health and safety of our staff and students while providing the best learning environment possible given our current situation. As described in our Fall Reopening Plan, the measures that we are taking include satellite rooms to allow for six-foot physical distancing, proper wearing of face-covering, practicing proper hand hygiene, having parents self-check children at home for symptoms, ventilation filter enhancements in our buildings, and increased and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting. Our learning environment includes additional remote learning tools, learning platforms, adequate laptop supplies for our students, and high-end cameras for improving learning in our satellite classrooms.
“For our plan to be successful, we need to make sure all of the above components are in place and operating effectively before we can safely implement the hybrid model. Unfortunately, due to the impact of COVID-19 on all areas we have experienced several logistical and staffing challenges that have delayed the implementation of the plan. Our challenges include filling staffing vacancies due to an increased volume of leaves of absences and accommodations for our staff who are unable to work in person, delayed delivery of technology devices, the challenge of scheduling and retrofitting classrooms with the appropriate amount of furniture and technology infrastructure and effectively implementing our learning platforms.
“Due to the above challenges, we are going to need to change our phase in hybrid plan to reflect a later in-person start date for most groups of students. This delay will allow us to hire and train staff for the vacant positions, receive and appropriately set up the technology and learning platforms, and set up the classrooms for an effective hybrid model of learning. We will still provide in-person instruction for our high needs, RISE Preschool, and Kindergarten students beginning on September 15th. All other students will start the school year in a remote model.
“At the August 27th School Committee meeting, we will provide a revised phase-in plan which will reflect the above changes. At the School Committee meeting this evening the Committee will defer public comment on this topic until the next meeting.
“We apologize for the timing of this notice and we realize the frustration that this will cause for families in trying to secure additional child care. However, we felt it was important that you received this information as soon as possible. We appreciate your patience as we revise our plan. We are looking at all options to address the concerns.”
The first policy the committee reviewed involved the use of face coverings by students and staff. The policy seeks to explain the rationale for the use of face coverings and to explain who might be exempt from the policy. School Committee member Shawn Brandt offered several possible changes to the written plan including stating that the principal would work with school nurses to determine exemptions to the policy in an effort to maintain similar interpretations of the policy throughout the district.
“We want to be as consistent across the district as we can.” School Committee member Thomas Wise stated.
Brandt also took issue with language in the policy that suggested that the district would get the Department of Children and Families involved if parents did not supply masks or if a student refused to wear them. “It feels like an overreach,” Brandt suggested. Member Erin Gaffen agreed, “The language comes across as threatening.” Doherty agreed to look into softening the language for the second reading of the policy.
The committee moved on to review the draft policy on remote learning. Members, in general, agreed with the policy, but both Brandt and Wise suggested language that creates a “living” policy for the district that would be applicable beyond the current crisis and would maintain readiness for possible future needs. Brandt also again suggested language to affirm consistency of experience across the district as a goal of virtual learning.
Director of Student Services Jennifer Stys, after a question by member Carla Nazzaro regarding which students would be in school full-time, shared that guidance in the issue had just been received from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Thursday and that the special education team would be reaching out to families individually to determine how to meet the needs of each of their students.
The School Committee adjourned to executive session at 8:15 pm.