WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — An increase in the number of families planning to send their children for in-person instruction is raising concerns of a budget hit for the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
At Thursday's School Committee meeting, Director of Curriculum and Instruction Joelle Brookner told the panel that the administration was a "bit surprised" by the results of the most recent survey of families about their preferences for the academic year.
About half as many families as in a prior survey indicated a preference for remote instruction only in 2020-21. Currently, there are 24 of 181 pupils at Lanesborough Elementary School (13 percent) opting for remote; there are 54 of 380 pupils (14 percent) at Williamstown Elementary; and there are 86 of 538 students (16 percent) at the middle-high school.
"I think we can look at that as confidence in everything we've been talking about to ensure safety," Brookner said.
But there is another way to look at it.
"As Joelle mentioned, the survey results, we have less than half of the students opting for remote as we had before," Mount Greylock Business Manager Joe Bergeron said. "And as we discussed, that changes a lot of the math around how we're going to allocate staff.
"What is equally important to note is when we were taking 160 to 180 kids out of our [elementary school] buildings and educating them remotely and that goes down to 77, we're now placing a much greater strain on our physical capacity and our ability to accommodate physical distancing, staff that and handle it in a way that is both safe and educationally sound."
The commonwealth has said school districts have to give families the option to keep their children home for remote instruction because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The three Mount Greylock schools are opening the academic year on Wednesday with remote learning and a plan to move to a hybrid learning model (with students spending two days in the buildings) on Oct. 5 and four days a week of in-person instruction for students who want it starting Nov. 2.
The School Committee had an item on its Thursday agenda to approve staffing changes, but Bergeron told the panel that the administrative staff has gone back to the drawing board to figure out how it is going to meet its staffing needs.
"We are going to be looking at potentially opening up new sections in a number of different grades and subjects, potentially, to accommodate that number of students coming into the building in October and even more in November," Bergeron said.
"Quite honestly, that move to four days in November that is projected is something that currently has us scrambling to try to figure out how to accommodate what we might see coming in. We do not currently have an ideal solution to it, so we're going to need more time to figure out how to staff that."
All three of the district's principals told the School Committee that their faculties have been working diligently to prepare to teach in a hybrid or fully remote environment. The commonwealth trimmed the number of instructional days for students statewide by 10 days to allow districts to use those days at the beginning of the year for professional development.
"All last week, teachers focused on professional development and technology, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, Google Forms, among other software teachers use throughout the day," Lanesborough Principal Nolan Pratt said. "In the afternoon, they've worked on compliance training for all the new policies and procedures for the school year."
"We've been trained by our social workers and school psychologist about the proper ways to talk about COVID with our students," Mount Greylock Principal Jacob Schutz said. "We've had [personal protective equipment] and health procedures drilled into us by our medical professionals."
"Ultimately, the overall feeling is we're looking forward to seeing our students and continuing to do what we're all passionate about, and that's education," Williamstown Elementary Principal Kristen Thompson said.
In other business, the School Committee approved an update to the district's policy on immunizations to incorporate a state mandate that students receive seasonal flu vaccinations during the pandemic.
It was scheduled to vote on the fees that it will charge families at Mount Greylock to participate in athletic programs this fall but decided to hold that vote after a planned discussion in executive session on its position in collective bargaining position with its teachers union.
That discussion was expected to allow the committee to vote on the stipends it will pay coaches, assuming there would be some adjustment given the altered landscape for interscholastic athletics during the pandemic.
After meeting in executive session for nearly two hours, the committee returned to open session and announced it would be taking no more votes on Thursday evening.
The athletic programs, meanwhile start on Sept. 18, with no indication for families what fees they will be charged.
The next scheduled School Committee meeting is Sept. 24. The School Committee has a special meeting planned for Tuesday, Sept. 15, with a single-item agenda: to go to executive session to discuss its bargaining strategy with an intention to return to open session and vote on a memorandum of agreement with the union.
Also on Thursday, the committee heard a report from interim Superintendent Robert Putnam that the district plans to display Black Lives Matter signage at all three of its buildings.
"It is the consensus of the administrative team that we would like to display signs of this sort," Putnam said. "It's the administration's belief it is something that will send messages on many levels to our community and students if we display Black Lives Matter signs on school property."
Putnam referred the committee to material analyzing the First Amendment implications of such a display on school grounds.
"We should be careful about how we do this, but it is within our purview to display messages of this sort that support the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement," Putnam said.
Though Putnam requested no vote from the School Committee, a couple of members spoke to the concept, including one who suggested the district could find a better way to engage on the issue.
"Rather than putting Black Lives Matter, we talk amongst ourselves about what we'd like to display, what words, what messages," Steven MIller said. "I think that would be a wonderful exercise in civics. ... Inspired by this but with the words chosen by our community."
Miller said he "strongly supports," Putnam's intent but maintained that the district should find its own way to support the intent of the Black Lives Matter movement.
"What does that mean to us?" Miller said. "Because when you have national organizations and different slogans, it's going to mean different things to different people. The question is when you put up something like that, are you endorsing all of the views of that organization? Or are you endorsing 95 percent? Now you have people saying I'm not comfortable with one position I don't like but I agree with everything else."
Jamie Art argued that the Black Lives Matter signs are a good idea but only a start.
"I'm totally comfortable with the posting of Black Lives Matter signs on the school grounds," Art said. "I think it's a good way to demonstrate our commitment to inclusion and principles of equity and might do a little bit to make sure more people feel welcome and respected in the school. That aligns with our mission as a school district.
"It's a very small step. I'm really interested in what more we do beyond putting up a sign — to look at what we're doing in the classrooms and doing in the schools to make sure our curriculum is where it should be in terms of teaching an accurate representation of our history and including lots of perspectives and voices in social studies and arts and music and English language arts.
"I don't want us to put up a sign and think we've done enough."