Summit Street School COVID sign

A sign on the fence outside of Summit Street School tells the public that all EWSD facilities are closed due to COVID-19.

The Essex Westford School District (EWSD) School Board held its last meeting before the start of the 2020-21 academic year Sept. 1. Here’s a look at some of the major topics and details shared.

Approving Policy A25

The board quickly reviewed and discussed implementing a new policy coded A25. Its purpose is to delegate authority from the school board to the superintendent during a State of Emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among other actions it allows, the policy gives the superintendent the ability to close a specific school building to in-person instruction without further action from the board. The school board can, however, choose to reopen the school after consulting with appropriate health and government authorities.

A25 also permits the superintendent to limit access to any of the district’s grounds or facilities as well as direct staff assignments during a district closure of in-person instruction. The superintendent will be able to decide which staff members need to report to work, reassign employees, or decide which staff members’ services would not be needed.

The motion to adopt the policy was unanimously approved.

Superintendent’s Updates

EWSD Superintendent Beth Cobb had Director of Social & Emotional Learning (SEL) and Wellness Dylan McNamara, Director of Learning & Instructional Impact Jacquelyn Tolman, and Chief Operating Officer Brian Donahue make presentations about their respective areas of work.

SEL

McNamara reported that a new school psychologist has been hired for Essex High School (EHS) while longtime special educator Paul Adams is transitioning into the role of SEL and behavior coach for EHS. He also said that, instead of there being one SEL and behavior coach for the two middle schools, each will have its own dedicated staff member for the position through a “cost neutral” way. Jessica Butler, who previously split her time between Essex Middle and Albert D. Lawton Intermediate (ADL), will now solely work at ADL while Sandra Baker, who was a humanities teacher at Essex Middle, will now be the SEL and behavior coach there.

Instructional Models and Curriculum

Tolman’s presentation touched upon some details regarding the two styles of instruction currently being offered to EWSD students, the hybrid and fully-remote option. She said both will meet, or exceed, the Vermont Agency of Education’s requirements in regards to the number of hours that students need to spend in instruction.

The fully-remote model, which is being called the EWSD Remote Academy, is planning to start the academic year with about 155 students in grades K-5, 90 in grades 6-8, 187 from Essex High, and 25 from the Center for Technology, Essex.

Tolman said that the district has allocated resources to hire certified teachers from states such as Massachusetts, Mississippi, Florida, and Montana to support remote learning. Cobb clarified that they will be part-time, temporary long-term substitutes with contracts that go into mid-January; the district will assess before that time where it stands with the subs and the potential need moving forward with them after that in consideration of the pandemic’s situation.

The Remote Academy, which will have a web page launched shortly that mirrors those of each school, will be able to provide unified arts for all grade levels as well as foreign languages.

"We are working very intently on that curriculum, instruction, and assessment alignment, along with that alignment of social and emotional standards," Tolman said about the Remote Academy and keeping it consistent with what students in the hybrid model are learning so that there is fluidity in the event that a child needs to move from one learning style to the other.

Operations: Facilities, Meals, and Finance

Donahue discussed various aspects of district operation moving into the beginning of the school year. The first was that EWSD has received 100 high-efficiency particulate air purifiers to be distributed throughout the buildings; another 100 are on order. In addition to those, facilities’ ventilation systems will be adjusted to have an outdoor air mix of 100 percent as long as the weather stays warm enough so that the equipment is not threatened. Staff will also be encouraged to open windows and doors as much as possible.

Donahue was happy to report that the USDA announced Aug. 31 several crucial waivers that will allow EWSD to continue providing free meals to all children 18 years and younger, not just students, like it has been able to do since March. Through December 2020, or until funding runs out, the district’s Child Nutrition Program will be serving food inside the schools, at locations throughout the community, and at the recently-established Rec Kids Supported Learning Spaces childcare facilities.

On the finance side of things, Donahue said that EWSD did not use its $3.835 million budgeted general fund balance carryover in Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) and expects to close out the fiscal year with just under a $1 million net-positive margin. A “good amount” of that pool of about $4.8 million will help cover expenses associated with COVID-19 as was approved by voters in June. Donahue noted that approximately $235,000 was spent out of the FY20 budget on coronavirus-related needs.

Other News and Notes

Transportation Costs

It was asked what happens to transportation expenses and costs for the district if it is to go on an “extended vacation” and the buildings are closed for a prolonged period of time.

Donahue explained that, if the state is to go back to Step I where academic instruction would be fully remote, any possible reimbursement by the state and flexibility or cooperation with EWSD’s transportation contractors would play a significant role in that outcome. He said the district was able to negotiate the full contract down last year after school buildings were closed in March and that EWSD, along with many other districts, ended up only paying through April.

BLM Flags

Since Black Lives Matter flags were raised at all of the district’s school buildings on Aug. 6, members of the public have been outspoken about the decision to do so. That conversation continued Tuesday night with seven members of the community providing input during the Comments from the Public portion of the meeting.

Five people, including a rising ninth grader at Essex High, spoke in support of the school board’s unanimous vote to raise the flags across the district. Two, however, were on the opposing side of the conversation, not because they don’t want to see equity and racial justice but rather because they want to see EWSD voice its support for that in a different manner. One speaker said that she doesn’t believe a public entity, being the school district, should be promoting a “political” group.

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