CHESHIRE, Mass. — The reopening of the three Hoosac Valley Regional schools on Sept. 1 and 2 encountered a few bumps but went off well for the most part, Superintendent Aaron Dean reported to the School Committee on Monday.
"The opening days, all in all, considering what we've been dealing with, went fairly smoothly," he said. "We had the typical transportation things that come up. In this case, we also had to deal with some COVID cases at the start of the year and we had to adjust some practices based on what we learned. ...
"Learning those lessons right away was probably good for us because we were able to make those adjustments fairly quickly with a long weekend."
The year started off with four positive cases of COVID-19 in the elementary school; a mobile unit was brought in for testing and that uncovered a few asymptomatic cases as well.
Another problem was that the school couldn't guarantee the 3-foot distancing in some spaces.
"Those were times where students were unmasked and a little bit closer together than they should have been," Dean said. "We really took a look at those practices right away, and made the adjustment with lunch."
To increase social distancing, the elementary school gym was put into service as a cafeteria and eating breakfast in the classrooms was eliminated. In the middle and high school, the middle school gym space was utilized and contingencies put in place to keep spacing between students when unmasked. (All public schools are required by the state to keep universal masking.)
"We got over that hurdle, I think everybody did a phenomenal job," he said. "We worked with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, public health on the state level throughout the weekend. They rushed out some test kits for us and supported us in a lot of ways."
He said the principal and school nurse had put in a great amount of effort in dealing with the situation. He also said the state's mask mandate should be an important mitigation tool through the year.
"I can't imagine the number of quarantines we would have if we didn't have the masking," he said. "Obviously, things change, vaccinations will happen and we'll continue to re-examine guidance, all the way through the year and do what we need to do to keep kids in school and keep kids safe."
Dean said he was in the schools the first days and "the first thing I noticed was happy people, a welcoming atmosphere in all of our schools and that's everything that you can hope for in the opening days. Not that we're not going to face challenges that we've got, I think now people have proven time and time again in this district that we step up to the challenge."
The superintendent introduced the new director of curriculum, Kristen Palatt, who had been assistant principal of teaching and learning at Morningside Community School in Pittsfield. The position was made possible through the district's federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund monies. Palatt will also oversee instruction and professional development.
"I see this as a key position to us in leveraging our curriculum and instruction," he said. "We're doing a lot of work that is data-driven decision making. Staff are going to need guidance on that work, training on that work. We're implementing a number of curriculums for our ELA in the elementary school."
The first steps will be English language arts, including in the middle and high school, as well as overhauling other curriculums in the next several years.
"I tried beginning a lot of that, I did the best I can but it really requires, especially in the middle of a pandemic, somebody that is an expert in the field, focused," he said, adding that Palatt has the expertise and wealth of knowledge to implement a new curriculum and guide teachers through the professional development.
Palatt joked that "I eat, sleep, and breathe, teaching and learning" as she presented plans to the committee.
There were a number of studies done on teaching and learning during the past year and half of the pandemic, she said, and that "most of the publications are consistent in their feelings about what educators, administrators and school districts need to do, need to prioritize and focus on in order to ensure that we're meeting all of our students need, and continuing to accelerate student learning."
The priorities will be implementing instructional practices across grades and content area that will accelerate learning across.
"This is the common language that we worked hard to develop over the summer, and our building principals and instructional leadership teams are committed to using a regular basis to support teaching and learning in the three schools," she said, adding "one of the big things that we're going to be doing in terms of curriculum, in addition to assessing the effectiveness of the programs that we have currently, is making sure that these curriculums get implemented with integrity, and teachers have the support that they deserve to to implement those programs."
In other business, the committee unanimously accepted a $30,000 grant from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to purchase a 10-seat van.
Colleen Byrd, dean of students at Hoosac Valley High School, said the van will be used to transport students to internships and work studies as part of the Pathways program. The van has been ordered (and will have a HVHS logo on it) and is expected to be ready in early 2022. The cost is about $31,000 so the district will have to cover the gap.
She said no special license is required to drive the van and Business Manager Erika Snyder said she had already spoken to the school district's insurer.
"We do already have a district vehicle on our policy and when we added that it wasn't anything over the top in terms of cost increases," she said, but added that maintenance, insurance and administration will be still be additional costs that the district will have to cover in the future.
• The committee also decided to have a negotiation committee meet with the Cheshire Selectmen on the use of the Cheshire School building for Central Office and other needs. Dean said he thought this had been a settled over the summer, and had submitted a lease agreement, but noted the Selectmen at their meeting last week had registered dissatisfaction with it.
He thought some of the comments at the meeting were "harsh and inaccurate" but didn't want to get into a back and forth about the lease through the media.
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