School Committee Grapples with Economic Realities of Full In-Person Elementary School Classrooms

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The School Committee, despite daunting financial and logistical challenges, is continuing to pursue information that could lead to full-week kindergarten classes and inclusion of an additional 149 students into the special-needs cohort in January.

However, a pivot from hybrid to in-person classes for first and second graders remains on the drawing board.

The committee spent two hours at its meeting Tuesday grappling with the details of Superintendent of Schools Philip Conrad’s report on what it would take to return the youngest learners to Davis School and expand so-called Cohort C, comprising students with learning disabilities who are in school every day.

Committee Chair Dan Brosgol asked Conrad to provide “hard numbers” to the committee at its November 24 meeting for full-time kindergarten and the expanded cohort. He also requested information on how surrounding towns are dealing with these issues. “We need a breakdown of how much this costs,” Brosgol said. Financial impact has to be shared with relevant town committees, adding that he still hopes January is a realistic target.

“We need to be comfortable asking for those funds,” Brosgol continued, noting, “It is our job to advocate for our children. I think it is critical for Cohort C to come back and for kindergarten to come back. I am committing to nothing except continuing this process faithfully.”

A parent group, calling itself Bring Bedford Back Safely, has been advocating for the return to full-time classes, primarily for Davis School.  Two weeks earlier the School Committee asked Conrad for details on whether and how that could take place.

Indeed, a representative of the group, Katy O’Connor, addressed the board at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “We continue to see our kids struggle” with remote learning, said O’Connor, mother of five young children. “We have yet to see widespread transmission at Davis, Lane, and John Glenn Middle School. The governor has emphasized an expectation of full learning in communities with low transmission rates.”

Tuesday night Conrad reported on the additional personnel that would be needed: Three kindergarten teachers and three teaching assistants; five first-grade teachers and two teaching assistants; and five second-grade teachers and two assistants. The process also would displace art and music, require the purchase of additional student tables and desks, add buses, change current arrival and dismissal times.

The main reason is safety. “The bottom line continues to be since July, the idea of six feet,” Conrad said, including student transportation. “And we have agreements with the Bedford Education Association to make sure teachers feel safe and their working conditions are safe.”

“Until something changes scientifically with that six-foot model, we are going to be limited in the number of students we can have back in the buildings full-time,” he continued. “We just don’t have the physical space for it. We know all our protocols have been working well. We have to hone the models that we have.”

The superintendent noted that the six-foot social-distancing standard comes from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “It is embedded in all of our planning. It is foundational for us.”

Davis School Principal Beth Benoit said the building is already at maximum capacity, and additional students could compromise “adult spaces for people to be able to social-distance,” like at lunchtime for teachers.

Conrad said Benoit crafted a hypothetical four-day kindergarten schedule incorporating 16 hours of actual learning. This would require an additional three teaches and two teaching assistants, as well as an additional 68 tables (in normal time kids share tables), relocation of two first-grade classrooms, separation of dismissal times with consideration for kindergarteners with older siblings, and reviewing the memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union.

“We see and know how kids are struggling with remote learning. There isn’t a single person at Davis who doesn’t want to do the right thing for children,” said Benoit. “We are following the health guidelines and educational guidelines. Anything we can think of, we are trying to do.”

Guay noted that there has not been virus transmission among younger students. The reason, Conrad replied, is the safety policy, including social-distancing, sanitizing, hand-washing, ventilation, and filtration. “If we begin to play with fire a little bit then we are in a difficult situation,” he said. “So far this is working.”

“It is our job to think about how we can do this better, and we shouldn’t be constrained about decisions we already made,” suggested committee member Brad Morrison.

The proposed Cohort C expansion to accommodate 149 students whose disabilities are defined as “moderate” presents a different challenge. Conrad explained that five additional personnel – new fourth and fifth-grade teachers, an assistant, and an additional special-education teacher – would be needed to accommodate expanding the size at Lane School. That’s because class sizes are at capacity — “We would have to open new classrooms.”

The other three schools could accommodate an expanded cohort, he said, but equity considerations preclude excluding a single school. “We would be sued,” said committee member Ann Guay. The cohort currently comprises 137 students in school four days a week, with between 21 and 34 at the five levels, including preschool, Conrad said.

Marianne Vines, director of special education, noted that expanding the group would result in breaking up some existing classes.  “We have been trying since August to figure out a way to do this.”

Guay said it likely would be difficult to find additional staff to hire in the middle of the school year. She also pointed out that if students with learning needs decide to enroll elsewhere, Bedford would be responsible for any associated costs.

“Our teachers, our counselors, our administrators are doing everything they can for each one of our students,” declared Conrad. “We are doing a wonderful job with the current model. I would not say that kids are not being served.” Guay asked Conrad to report on the welfare of the teachers at the next committee meeting.

Lane Principal Rob Ackerman predicted that if current class makeup is changed, “I would have a bucket full of emails from parents who would not be happy. There are so many variables involved,” including teachers’ comfort.

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, in answer to a question from committee member Sarah Scoville, the superintendent said the recent two-week pivot at BHS to fully remote learning in response to an uptick in virus cases was effective.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763
Click this link to learn more about The Bedford Citizen’s first community reporter.


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