Emergency School Committee meeting addresses COVID-19 impacts

March 17, 2020

As the spread of COVID-19 produces further complications regarding academic and social logistics in Westford, the School Committee led an emergency virtual meeting on March 16th to continue discussing the virus’s impact in Westford. 

First and foremost, Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery restated Governor Charlie Baker’s decision to close all MA schools from March 17th through April 7th. The possibility of the school cancellation extending beyond this date was mentioned, but, for now, the committee remains optimistic that social distancing will suppress the spread of COVID-19 and residents will soon be able to restart their normal ways of life. 

“[April 7th] is where we are at this point. It could certainly bump out because, right now, we’re just trying to see where this virus goes. Hopefully, if we do our due-diligence mitigating the spread by practicing social distancing, then the April 7th date is realistic and we would be able to return to our everyday lives,” Clery said.

Despite the three-week break period, the absolute last day for all Westford Public Schools will be June 23, 2020. April break will not be canceled as the state has provided all towns with a waiver on the 180 school day policy. 

While many parents and students expected this lack of in-school instruction to be compensated with mandatory distance learning, as had been done two years prior when we had many snow days, the WPS has decided to refrain from instituting mandatory distance learning for its students this year. As per state guidelines, the school board will simply suggest students participate in optional enrichment activities.

“In many households, the anxiety is high. And we just want to provide the time for people to get situated and to get oriented and not add yet another demand this week by saying, ‘by the way, here are all the things you’re supposed to be doing,’”  Clery said. 

Choice Board for PRE-K

The links to these enrichment activities will be compiled in a website organized by grade level. Teachers will be working with their coordinators in order to fill each grade level’s section with links appropriate to the curriculum. At the end of every week, the staff will constantly be reassessing the breadth and quality of the resources they post. 

“We are having one website where you click your grade level or the high school level, and click your course level […] [The website] will be on the front page of our district website, and it will bring you [to] a Google site […] The goal is that this will be implemented by Monday,” Clery added. 

Students who cannot access personal devices in order to reach these sites may contact their building principals for loaner iPads and Chromebooks. Comcast has also offered to provide those in need with free wifi for the next 60 days. 

“We do not want there to be students who cannot access the same enrichment opportunities as the rest of their peers due to the fact that they don’t have access at home,” Clery mentioned. 

Another concern expressed in the audience was if children will still move up a grade level to which Clery responded that school closure will have no impact considering this is a state-wide suspension. All students will progress academically as they would normally. 

At the older grade levels, Clery remarked that guidance counselors would be working with the state in order to contrive a fair assessment policy. 

“Elementary report cards are going out March 20th. Right now, the guidance for teachers is that the work that has been done up until this point, March 12th, will be what’s looked at. Certainly, if this break is to get extended beyond [and] into the end of the school year, [then] the state will help provide guidance on that,” Clery said.

College Board provides COVID-19 updates

On the topic of higher grade-level testing, Clery also mentioned that they are awaiting guidance on SATs and AP exams. They were informed that the commissioner is in contact with the College Board and is constantly providing the company with information on how MA is doing in terms of learning, but, for now, they don’t have a plan in place. As for the SATs, the May 2nd exam has been canceled and those students who signed up for the March 14 SAT exam will get a refund. According to the college board, the AP testing program is being revised in order to accommodate students to test at home.

The AP Program is developing resources to help schools support student learning during extended closures, as well as a solution that would allow students to test at home, depending on the situation in May,” The College Board said. 

In addition, the commissioner is requesting a waiver to skip MCAS altogether, but if it is denied, then the MCAS will be postponed. 

“The commissioner is exploring possibilities of requesting a waiver regarding MCAS and the requirement for this year. In the meantime, the ELA MCAS has been totally postponed altogether [..] If a waiver is granted, then we may not have MCAS this year,” Clery said. 

While academics still remain a substantial concern for many in Westford, the committee hopes that as a community, residents will continue to be cognizant of the most important thing– their health. 

“While I am happy and I’m sure all of our viewers are happy to hear that we do not have any confirmed or presumed cases within our school communities. I hesitate to have that give a false sense of comfort that people hear that and think, ‘oh okay well there’s no presumed cases and so we can have playdates with each other or go to the library,” School Committee member Megan Eckroth said. 

Social Aspects in Town 

As of now, the School Committee is still undecided whether or not COVID-19 will result in the cancellation of social aspects in town, such as Capstone, Disney, Prom, and Cotillion. Currently, the committee believes there will be some sort of effect on these activities, although that impact is unclear at the moment. According to Clery, the deadline for deciding a hard “yes” or “no” on these activities has been pushed back by WA Principal James Antonelli.

“There is certainly concern in a lot of talk about the capstone projects where students are going out to different companies that actually may not even be open. This is one of the details that we will be addressing in the very near future, as well as the Disney trip. I know that Principal Antonelli has been able to push off the deadline, so the more time we can buy the better. However, at this point, the assumption is that the field trips in the near future will be impacted somehow,” Clery said. 

Overall, Clery and the school committee stressed the importance of practicing social distance at all costs during the break-in order for the three-week break to remain effective. One of the social distancing initiates that will be implemented is the closing down of all school playgrounds for public access. 

Examples of questions asked during the meeting

In addition, the district has implemented a new initiative to provide grab-n-go lunches for those who usually receive free or reduced meals. Under Director of Food Services Colleen Wallace, cafeteria workers will be preparing these lunches and handing them out at WA starting March 19th from 10 AM to 12 PM in order to keep students healthy while taking necessary safety precautions. 

“It’s a community issue and we are a community, and just that firm reminder that, you know, we all have to do that part which is limit that contact and not be at the playgrounds, and not be on the playdates as hard as it’s gonna be, and it’s uncharted territory for all of us. But right now is the critical time that we have an opportunity to really limit the spread,” committee member Chris Sanders said. 

At the middle and high school levels, committee member Megan Eckroth acknowledges and hopes the committee will find a way to combat the social and emotional impact of this practice of separation. 

“I’ve especially heard from families with children at the middle school and high school levels that the emotional impact of social distancing is quite challenging. They certainly rely a lot on their peers and social setting. Any resources or ideas that can be targeted at those groups in terms of maintaining mental and emotional wellness through this are trying to be implemented,” Eckroth said. 

While the coronavirus outbreak continues, Clery hopes to assure families that the district is trying its absolute best to combat any difficulties as a united front. 

“I think [coronavirus] gives people a great sense of uneasiness […] All of the superintendents in the area are taking their guidance from DESE [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], and are all in this boat together,”  Clery said.

 

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