School Committee Reviews Crisis Plans

Reading, MA — Superintendent of Schools John Doherty and members of the school district leadership team from the district central office updated the School Committee regarding their activities during the school shut down over the last several weeks. Doherty stated several times that when schools closed on Friday, March 13, no one knew that the shut down was going to be as long as it appears it will be. “We are building the airplane as it flies,” Doherty said regarding the process of developing educational and other services for students at home. He also said that Director of Finance Gail Dowd, who was scheduled to leave the district, has extended her stay through the end of the crisis.

Doherty began by explaining the district’s “continuity of operations” plan which defines clear roles and responsibilities for each employee and includes succession planning for each area. He then defined nine different categories that have been addressed, including continuity of education, facilities, finance and business, food service, communications, and special education. 

Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Christine Kelley outlined plans that have been created to help maintain continuity of education. She explained that the plans consist of two “phases.” Phase one began at closure and lasted until April 6. It was focused on connectivity with families and providing resources for students. Almost 4,200 families were contacted asking what resources each family had available at home for online learning. Time was spent setting up Google classrooms for elementary teachers and seeking guidance from state education officials as to what options were recommended for extension of learning. “We want to provide a sustainable program with a focus on equity.” Kelley shared. “A program that is nimble and proactive.”

Phase two began on April 6 with high school distance learning plans sent to families on Sunday and middle school plans sent on Monday. Doherty described Monday, April 6 as the “second first day of school” for Reading students. Elementary plans are expected soon according to Kelley. Online learning plans focus on “depth over breadth” according to Kelley with teachers expected to offer students tools and activities to maintain and practice skills that have already been taught. New material will not be explored. There is also to be an emphasis on flexibility, recognizing the differing resources that students may have at home and the differing schedules and time that parents have to help students. “First-grade parents may not be able to get their students online at 9:00 am to meet with the class,” Kelley suggested as an example. Plans will not include a lot of mandated “have tos” for students, to allow for more flexibility. Teachers will also offer “office hours” each week where students needing support can connect with questions.

Kelley reported that middle school and high school terms three and four will be wrapped into one quarter and students will not receive grades, but pass/pass incomplete on their report cards. These designations will have no effect on grade point averages. She also mentioned that there will be no third-quarter report cards for elementary school and there will be no elementary summative assessments. There are no plans to offer additional programs for general education students during the summer. Kelley’s team is also looking ahead to how to plan for the impact this year’s closure will have on next year’s learning plans.

Doherty addressed a question from new School Committee member Shawn Brandt regarding obstacles in getting to this point. Doherty explained that the situation emerged faster than expected and that remote learning platforms had to be built from the ground up. Two memorandums of agreement had to be reached with the teacher’s union. The first five days were considered by the district as “snow days” and used to develop a plan. Phase one communications went into effect in the second week. Teachers were doing online training on how to use new tools during this time as well. There were also security glitches with the video conferencing tool that needed to be ironed out. Kelley chimed in that the model Reading has adopted is more sustainable than other communities have provided to this point. “I feel like we are in a really good place at this point.” Kelly pointed out.

Doherty addressed questions about why some districts had full online learning in place for the crisis. He responded by saying that very few districts were actually doing true online teaching and those that already had the infrastructure in place, some for several years. He cited one nearby district with such capabilities that still only was getting 50 percent participation in the program. He cited lack of resources as to why no online platform already existed in Reading, reminding the committee that the district is only two years removed from possibly canceling the middle school foreign language program due to budgetary cuts. “After the override, we have been rebuilding teaching and learning.” He added.

Reports were also given regarding the other eight categories. Efforts include virtual team meetings for families with special needs students, meal and technology distribution for families in need, and deep cleaning of all the buildings. Doherty pointed out that the school buildings are now closed and will not be accessible until school reopens.

The meeting began with Chair Chuck Robinson welcoming the three newly elected members of the committee and with the selection of Thomas Wise as the new vice-chair of the committee. Robinson also promised that a discussion regarding tuition and fees for services not rendered will be forthcoming at the April 16 meeting and that “No one will lose their spot” before then. He also suggested a deeper conversation regarding an extension to the superintendent’s contract wait until there could be greater public participation.

The School Committee adjourned at 10:05 pm.

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