The School Committee and the superintendent of schools Tuesday affirmed a commitment to a serious exploration of ways to restore classroom learning – particularly at Davis School and for students with special needs – as soon as January, barring a reignition of Covid-19 in the community.
Superintendent Philip Conrad said he expects to be able to present some specific information at the committee’s meeting on November 10.
School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol was passionate about addressing the community. “Now is the time to ask questions about what’s possible for our younger kids to go back more,” he asserted. “That should be our mandate: how can we do better. What resources do we need?”
“Here is what I think is possible,” Brosgol presented. “If we continue holding this delicate status quo, then I would really be interested in seeing something new for 2021. If it continues to be understood that the schools are not spreading the virus, then we have to feel urgency about bringing kids back.”
He stressed that his focus is on Davis School and the possible expansion of the in-person special-needs cohort. “In two weeks, we want to know about Cohort C – specifically, can we get more kids in there? In two weeks can we get a sense of what might be possible?”
Conrad said, “I think I can give you a sense of what is possible at Davis,” addressing busing, staffing, equipment, schedules, and other variables. “Later, looking at other schools, there will be different questions, he said.
Brosgol acknowledged that “this is a community health issue. Here we are in Bedford trying to make the decision that is best for us.”
The discussion Tuesday followed increasing lamentations from parents about the difficulties of remote learning for their younger children. The views were expressed during the public comment segment of the meeting, with almost every speaker lauding teachers, administrators, and volunteers for their efforts.
One mother advocated expanding the so-called Cohort C, daily in-person learning for students with special needs. She told of her first-grader struggling on Zoom “with one teacher and 24 other first graders.”
Another speaker, representing a grass-roots group calling itself Bring Back Bedford Safely, called on school officials to “develop a plan for a safe return based on the latest scientific evidence.” She said online learning means many younger students are falling behind, and “the experience is “detrimental impact to social and emotional well-being.”
Although the following speaker emphasized the need for safety as the top priority, especially with cases on the rise, another said her eight-year-old “struggles daily with remote learning despite having an excellent team of teachers.” Other speakers testified as to their young children’s struggles with technology, feelings of failure, “meltdowns” without sources for answers, and a loss of confidence.
“We’ve managed to get here by deploying an incredible amount of resources and effort,” Brosgol said. “The stress points emerging we all agree on. I find the asks we are getting completely reasonable and now is the time to ask and plan for contingencies.”
That will involve the teachers’ union, transportation, building space, and scheduling. “Let’s answer those questions at each meeting and generate more. If things go well, what can we do safer and better? Hopefully, there can be a post-December vacation pivot. It may take more money. If it does, put a number on it.”
“The teachers are working incredibly hard and doing an amazing job. It doesn’t seem like ‘thank you’ is enough,” Conrad said. In answer to a question, he noted that attendance is between 97 and 99 percent, including hybrid and remote learning.
Conrad acknowledged “the stress points on our hybrid model. Can we bring back more students in Cohort C? Can we bring back more in kindergarten and the younger grades? Each of those comes with a variety of questions that have to be answered.”
He enumerated variables that have to be factored into changes: transportation, scheduling, space limitations, arrival and dismissal times, furniture, equipment, and staffing. All of these are being considered by central office leadership and building principals, he said.
“We have been incredibly successful in staffing. Everyone is learning a new way to work. It really has been amazing to watch,” Conrad said. But he added, “A lot of teachers don’t feel they are succeeding the way they used to.”
Committee member Ann Guay emphasized that the pandemic doesn’t negate special-needs students’ individual education plans. She urged parents to speak up if their children are struggling.
“There are signals that we are not doing so well for some children. That’s a call to action,” said member Brad Morrison. “And it doesn’t mean people aren’t doing their best.” He asked about staffing levels, and Conrad acknowledged that “we are having difficulty getting substitutes, just like other districts. ”
He also talked about the specter of “burnout.” School counselors and administrators are vigilant, he said, and “the parents have been great.” He acknowledged that ‘it has been difficult for teachers. When something is new I don’t think we all feel we good at it right away. The kinder we can be to one another the better off we’ll all be.”
Member Joann Santiago said at this point the focus is on the school administration because “these are mainly logistical questions. We want to continue to be collaborative so planning can work for as many people as possible” She added, “Some of the angst is built around uncertainty.”
Guay suggested investigating expanding into unused municipal space – such as the library, which is closed.” Morrison said, “We have resources and a lot of problem-solving capacity in the parent community. Be ambitious in thinking about what we can accomplish.”
He also stressed that there is always room for improvement in the current models. “What I’ve learned is there seems to be a very different experience in the younger grades than older grades” with the one-size-fits-all model, he said.
Member Sarah Scoville noted upcoming parent-teacher conferences. At that time, “I hope a lot of these conversations will come out about what the kids need.