School Committee Mulls “Recovery” Budget for In-Classroom Learning

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School Committee members explored in detail at their meeting on Jan. 12 the educational implications of returning to school in the fall with smaller class sizes, particularly at Davis and Lane Schools.

One of the fiscal 2022 budget options the committee is considering incorporates additional personnel to allow for expanding the number of classrooms.

The so-called “recovery” budget option assumes that almost all students will be back in school, and the primary reason for the additional classrooms is to sustain physical distancing. The assumption is that the pandemic, while perhaps receding, will still be a consideration.

But there are also educational advantages, said Assistant Superintendent of Schools Tricia Clifford, and they will be needed, as there is evidence that students are falling behind educational goals since the onset of the pandemic more than 10 months ago.

She acknowledged that Bedford student data from last fall is less worrisome than recent statewide studies. Committee member Brad Morrison asked for more details on local trends, which he said could be helpful when the committee describes the budget to “another group.” The school budget proposal is scheduled to be presented to the Finance Committee on Feb. 4.

School Committee Chair Dan Brosgol emphasized that the budget options under consideration are scenarios and do not define the actual criteria for the start of the next school year. That will be determined by the prevalence of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and probably won’t be evident until as late as August. “We will be looking at guidance and trends all summer. The guidance we need is not going to be forthcoming between now and Feb. 4,” he said.

“When we take a position, we will say, ‘Here are the dollars at stake to support kids in various scenarios.’ But this is not a vote on how we are going to reopen in the fall.”

The committee will continue to review the budget options next Tuesday and hold a statutory public hearing on Feb. 2, followed by a vote.

Finance Director Julie Kirrane noted small adjustments in the versions. The baseline budget number is now a 3.8 percent increase after adding a half-time assistant and $10,426 for junior varsity hockey. The recovery budget now includes $100,000 for substitutes and $210,000 for paraprofessionals, mostly offset by savings for furniture and anticipated federal assistance.

“We are trying to build a layered budgetary concept,” Clifford said, that includes explicit details about components. “We are trying to recommend to the town the type of support that will most help teaching and learning be successful in the fall, and also bring all the students who want to come safely back to the buildings.”

She spent several minutes on a presentation entitled “Teaching and Learning in Covid Recovery.”

As long as the pandemic is ongoing, she said, a return to in-person learning requires the physical distancing of “lower-density” classes. That also happens to be consistent with the Bedford schools’ strategic objectives, she said.

The proposed reductions in size are not huge, Clifford pointed out – 16 at Davis School and 18 at Lane School,  a reduction of four or five per room. In answer to member Ann Guay’s question, Clifford said the number 16 was based on maximizing available space while maintaining six feet of distancing.

Clifford said she has spoken with curriculum specialists, teachers, and other professionals about “what do we need to do to address the needs of students,” needs that “we know will be different.” She reviewed the district’s educational objectives and pointed out how their realization can be abetted by smaller class sizes; higher-order thinking skills; equity and diversity; a collaborative professional culture; long-term planning.

Similarly, she continued, priorities like social-emotional learning, response to intervention, and differentiation are fostered by smaller classes. Does every student need this? asked Ann Guay. That’s the reason for classroom differentiation, Clifford replied. Member Sarah Scoville said she is a “huge fan” of small class sizes

Clifford acknowledged that “the research behind small class size has been talked about for decades and is not all definitive.” Research does suggest that it is particularly helpful for younger children.

In answer to Guay’s question, Clifford said “I think the focus is for one year.” School Superintendent Philip Conrad added that after a year, “I can see us pursuing things like differentiation so we can continue to grow instructional strategies to a wider group, and expand our capacity to use these best practices.”

In response to a point from member JoAnn Santiago, Conrad said he will scrutinize the budget proposals for any “surprises” that cannot be quantified.

Personnel costs related to continuing some degree of remote instruction is included in the “recovery” budget. “We don’t want students to stay home just because they want to,” Guay said; the committee will be looking for state guidance on metrics like percent vaccinated.

There’s a third, worst-case-scenario budget version that the committee hasn’t addressed much. It calls for a spending increase of more than $5 million, which is more than 12 percent over the approved fiscal 2021 budget. This version assumes that all current protocols remain, but also that most students have returned to full-time in the buildings. Most of the additional costs are for personnel.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763
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