Wellesley School Committee meeting: In-person instruction will wait until October

Wellesley Public Schools officesThe Wellesley School Committee (SC) met remotely on August 25th to discuss the future of in-person education in Wellesley.

One take-away — getting kids and teachers back into school buildings will depend largely on the successful implementation of a coronavirus testing program, which will be financed in part by state funding, and in part by local funding. (See Wellesley Education Foundation seeks to raise up to $3.5 million for COVID testing program.)

As for when students will this year begin their education, the State of Massachusetts says that all learning for students statewide must begin no later than September 16. For Wellesley students, school will begin on that date, however, all students will start school remotely.

Initially, the district had planned to start school with a hybrid model that included in-person education starting on Sept. 16. Now, however, students will not report to school buildings until  October 1 – 2, when the transition to in-person hybrid schooling will begin.

Wellesley gets a new school

A key component in determining how schools would open in the fall was the results of the Families and Educators surveys, which which were sent out online in July. Those survey results reflected a preference in the community for a hybrid schooling model. Lussier noted, “We’re looking at just over 500 students whose parents have opted them into the remote learning model.” That number reflects roughly 10% of the student population, and to  serve them, the town is essentially launching a brand-new school.

The district is in the process of hiring a principal and staff to serve the students attending this new remote-learning school.

“We’re essentially going to have a school of about 500 students who are there stem-to-stern — elementary, middle, and high school — so we do need a single individual who can help provide management and support of that whole program,” Lussier said.

Will there be enough staff?

Whether there will be the necessary staff to teach in-person is right now an unknown. Many school staff members, 95% of whom live outside of Wellesley, may have medical issues of their own or within their families that could preclude them from returning. Also, many staff members have child care issues. With each district developing its own return plans which vary greatly across the Metrowest area, the children of staff may  potentially have a very different school schedule than their parents who work in Wellesley.

Then there’s the safety issue, something that has been at the forefront of negotiations between the Wellesley Educators Association (WEA) and the district as they’ve worked toward reaching an agreement on reopening plans. In a letter to the school community, Lussier said, “Our educators have raised a number of serious concerns about the safety of returning to an in-person education and the degree to which our health and safety protocols will mitigate their level of risk, which has been the most significant issue in our negotiations with the WEA.”

“We are concerned that unless we continue to address some of the safety issues, we may not have the staff,” Lussier said during the School Committee meeting.

To address these concerns, the district has gone beyond the baseline safety protocols of planned implementation of social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing. Because indoor air quality is a hot-button issue right now, the schools have been working with the Wellesley Facilities Management Department (FMD) to improve air filtration in the buildings. They plan to achieve that through installing MERV 13 air filters in the schools’ HVAC systems. These filters reportedly filter out small particles and debris before they are released into the air.

Production and distribution is proving to be a challenge, however. The delivery time for the filters, which are made out of the same high-demand material used to make masks, is estimated to be from a few weeks away to as long as 10 weeks. The FMD currently is installing the filters as they have been able to obtain them.

The great outdoors

The district plans to leverage Wellesley schools’ outdoor spaces as much as possible and has found 4-season tents which can take on the winter’s snow load. “These are things we can actually use year-round,” Lussier said.

The rental tents will not mimic an indoor space. They won’t have flaps that can be drawn down, nor will they be heated. Their purpose is to reduce time indoors.

Testing 1,2,3

The district sees coronavirus testing as essential to opening schools and to keeping them and to keeping them open. To that end, the plan is for a testing program that has three strands:

  1. A baseline testing of all students and staff
  2. Immediate testing of all students and staff who present with COVID symptoms
  3. Ongoing, proactive surveillance testing

The plan is for all staff to be tested once per week, and either the full population of students or potentially a smaller group, perhaps 1/3 of all students, to be tested each week. “This will allow us to capture any outbreaks of students who might be carriers with no symptoms, so we can move swiftly to quarantine those students,” Lussier said.

Because asymptomatic testing is not covered by insurance plans, the Wellesley Education Foundation has been fundraising for the effort. In addition, Cindy Mahr, Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations, reported that WPS has received three grants from the state:

  1. $100k grant to be used toward technology
  2. $123k grant from the COVID relief fund
  3. $1 million grant, also COVID-related (to go toward items such as tents; PPE; study costs on ventilation and air circulation)

Air filters, tents, and testing is what passes for good news these days

After explaining plans to order and install air filters, erect tents, and fundraise for COVID tests, you just knew that another shoe had to drop, and it did. Lussier broke the news that school reopening would not go forward with the same trajectory put forth in the original Wellesley Public Schools reopening plan.

Whereas back in July the plan was for in-person instruction of students to begin on September 16, now the plan is for the first in-person day to be two weeks later, on October 1st and 2nd.

Instruction will still begin on September 16, however, that work will begin in a fully remote model.

We’ve heard from a few parents who are feeling frustrated. One parent via Facebook message encapsulated the mood saying, “I don’t understand who is to blame for our kids not going back, when every private school will. How does the union have so much power?”

We’ve heard from other families who have decided to opt out of the public schools entirely for now. They’re searching for a teacher to homeschool their own kids and a couple more from families they know and trust  in a pod-model of education. These families are not kidding around and are offering full-time pay, benefits, sick time, and vacation time.

Still, the donors who are pledging big bucks to the Wellesley Education Foundation (WEF) may be the silent cheerleaders in support of the public schools. Over 500 families out of a parent community of nearly 3,000 families submitted responses to a WEF-initiated survey designed to gauge interest in funding an ongoing COVID testing program. Respondents indicated a willingness to contribute to the program in excess of $750,000.

WEF has gotten things going by donating $250,000, just to show where they stand in the realm of civic responsibility and leadership.

As the school year creeps closer ever-so-slowly, one thing seems clear. Don’t be surprised if things change again during this time of pandemic.

Below, the most-recent WPS reopening plan:

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