Reading, MA — The School Committee was given the news on June 11 that the modular units that are being installed at the Birch Meadow Elementary School will be delayed. Initially, the units were expected to be ready to use for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, but delays in the manufacturing of the units as a result of the COVID-19 crisis have extended the installation of the units until mid-October at the earliest. Director of Finance Gail Dowd said that there will be no financial repercussions for the project’s contractor, as the negotiated language in the contract anticipated possible issues.
Site work for the project will be completed during the summer so that when the units are delivered, they will be able to be installed quickly. Birch Meadow Principal Julia Hendrix and Director of Facilities Joe Huggins are developing a plan to house the classes that had been expecting to use the space in September. It is possible that temporary rooms will be installed in the gymnasium of other locations in the building.
Superintendent of Schools John Doherty expanded on his letter of last week, explaining what school may look like in September. Doherty shared that there is a constant flow of information from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), with four memos just in the past week. A 54-member task force at the state level has been charged with developing a plan for schools for the fall. “The plan will be 85% prescriptive,” Doherty stated. He also believes that school is likely, to begin with, a 50% in school, 50% remote model in the fall.
Doherty suggested several models as to how this might be implemented, though no choices can be made until guidance comes from DESE. “Parents are frustrated, we are frustrated (with the lack of clarity),” Doherty added. Central office staff has established committees to work on issues such as continuity of learning, social and emotional issues for students and staff, and communication and operations. Doherty also remarked that the use of a hybrid model of learning will require a new memorandum of agreement with the Reading Teachers Association.
After extended discussion, the committee voted 5-1 to endorse the Community Action for Social Justice Rally this Saturday. School Committee member Erin Gaffen shared her belief that it is “Absolutely important that we show our students of color that we support them.” Member Shawn Brant continued, “We need to show up as allies in this fight.”
School Committee member Carla Nazzaro was the single dissenting vote, citing concerns over potential liability given the lack of a permit for the event and that no opinion of the Board of Health in regards to the safety of the event was presented. While expressing support of the goals of the event, Nazzaro stated that “with her school committee hat on” she had to act with caution. Committee member Thomas Wise also expressed concern that the event is used to bring about unity, not discord in the community. Chair Chuck Robinson concluded the discussion, “The kids are asking for our support. That’s why we are here.”
The School Committee also voted 6-0 to endorse a letter by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees asking that there be no unfunded mandates in regards to the needs of schools districts preparing for fall school in the COVID-19 era, Dowd estimates that Personal Protective Equipment alone could cost the district between $650,000-$700,000.
The committee voted 5-1 to add to its electronic messaging policy and to add a social media policy that provides guidance to members in their social media interactions on school-related issues online. The new policy also anticipates the committee establishing its own social media presence. Committee member John Parks was the dissenting vote. The meeting began with recognition of the teachers and staff reaching significant milestones this year, as well as those who are retiring.
The June 18 School Committee meeting has been moved to June 22, to make way for the possibility of Town Meeting extending to a second night. An additional meeting was added for June 25 to approve and vote on the superintendent’s annual review, and to vote on a possible contract extension.
The School Committee adjourned at 10:35 pm.