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Mount Greylock School Committee Talks about Long-Term COVID Costs

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock School Committee last week talked about the toll that last classroom time is having on learners and the financial cost the district might incur to fill some of the learning gaps.
Committee member Jose Constantine pointed to some dire national statistics about the effect of teaching in a remote or hybrid model and asked whether the Lanesborough-Williamstown schools were seeing similar consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the major decision from the committee's last 2020 meeting was a move to address perceived physical education and co-curricular needs, students' academic needs consumed more time during the 4 1/2-hour public portion of the virtual session. 
"There is some data out there that suggests our K-2, K-3, early learners could be 22 months behind where they should be," he said. "It's not that the pandemic has stalled their learning. They may have even regressed.
"Do we have any data to suggest how we're doing as a district in our elementary schools and where our students are?"
District Director of Curriculum and Instruction Joelle Brookner told Constantine that the local schools are tracking children's progress. And while it is too soon to say definitively, the initial data is not as dismal as one might think.
"I'm not prepared to go in-depth into this, but I will tell you that, yes, we do have some data," Brookner said. "I've been meeting with the elementary school principals to talk about curriculum, and one of the things we've done is to look at the benchmark data. … These are just temperature checks to see how children are doing. We use Track My Progress, which we do three times a year, and it is looking at a variety of skills in reading and language arts and a variety of concepts in math. And then we use the DIBELS Next, which is a benchmarking tool for reading fluency.
"We do both of those three times a year, and then principles and specialists in the building meet with the teachers and make determinations, do interventions. … Based on what we looked at, I was actually kind of surprised. I was expecting our benchmark data from the fall to be, frankly, abysmal, and I was expecting it to show really serious gaps. Looking at it in terms of what a typical, say, first grade, might be in the fall, there's really not much difference that we're seeing from the spring, which was great.
"If you look at the same cohort of children, so we're looking at second year this year, last year's first grade -- and it's not totally across the board, so I'm not prepared to talk about this in depth -- at some grade levels it's more pronounced than others, but, in general, the outlook is much, much better than we thought."
Brookner told the committee that she and other administrators will continue to break down the data and that all the district's teachers are committed to doing what they need to do to get students where they need to be.
Later, Constantine asked Superintendent Jason McCandless whether the district is thinking about how it will help kids make up for lost time in the classroom.
McCandless said those conversations have begun statewide and in Berkshire County.
"I do think we are already thinking about: What does the summer look like?" McCandless said. "And, maybe, what does the 2021-22 school year look like in terms of, maybe, an extended school day for some, potentially running some vacation programs for school breaks.
"We are absolutely thinking through, how do we approach this knowing there is some harm being done. And the harm being done, not by us, necessarily, but by the situation. And the harm impacts every family in different ways. … We're going to need to think about how to really personalize catch-up, whether it's on an academic level or on a social/emotional level or whether it's trying to make up for actual regressions, not just moving forward or thriving."
With the School Committee due to dive into the fiscal 2022 budget next month, Constantine pressed McCandless about what sort of fiscal impact such initiatives might have.
McCandless said he thought "compensatory" programs would be a good use for any additional federal assistance the district might see to cover costs of the pandemic. He said the programs could take the form of additional tutoring from Williams College students, small groups of district students with similar learning gaps or "traditional summer school class for high school students who need that extra month of physics or calculus before they're ready to go to a college campus."
"I'd be lying if I said we could quantify it right now," McCandless told Constantine. "Yes, we agree we need to do it. No, we're not at a place where we can quantify it right now."
The emotional impact of remote learning was raised early in the meeting, both in the public comment portion and by the high school's student council representative, who told the committee that while some students are thriving in the remote environment, others are not.
"There are a lot we've heard from who are really struggling," Charlie McWeeny said. "They're struggling to stay engaged in classes, struggling with being isolated from peers, struggling to keep up with work when not directly engaged with teachers."
The district's director of academic technology told the School Committee that the administration is using a screener to identify students who may need additional support.
"We are pushing out our mental health screener at the three schools," Elea Kaatz said. "First parents will receive a form … Next, the teachers fill out a screener. So there is a parent form, a teacher form, and finally, we have a student form that students in grades 5-12 will fill out. We can look at the data, and say, ‘How much support do we need to provide?' ‘Are students struggling that we may not see on the outside who may not be self-referring?' This will give us another data point to look at.
"We recognize that mental health supports are stretched thin, or there might be cost hurdles for families. We are exploring options to provide teletherapy programming to support our students in addition to our school psychologists and guidance counselors. Next steps for that are to finalize our partnerships and review the referral and intake processes with our building-based administrative team."

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Williamstown Employees Resign After Complaint; Board Member Leaving

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two employees of the town resigned Monday in the wake of a complaint about employee conduct.
And one member of the five-person Select Board will be leaving his post a year ahead of schedule.
Those were the surprises to emerge from a meeting that mostly focused on the town's efforts to investigate accusations of wrongdoing in its police department and develop a plan to replace its recently retired chief.
Select Board Chair Jane Patton announced the employees' departure at the start of the meeting.
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