From crayons to cash flow: Schools face many challenges ahead of reopening

Jul 22, 2020

Schools are faced with many challenges on how to reopen safely and effectively this fall. 

On Wednesday, July 22, the Wareham School Committee discussed issues including how to keep students engaged with remote learning, and how to accommodate children in need of special education. Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Shaver-Hood and School Committee member Joyce Bacchiocchi then met with the Finance Committee to discuss some of the budget implications of the pandemic.

This was the committee’s second workshop session, where the committee has worked with educators and administrators from Wareham Public Schools to plan for how students will learn next school year. 

Last week, Shaver-Hood and all four school principals presented some pros and cons of different approaches to reopening. Although they would like to have students back in school to learn face to face, a fully in-person approach is unlikely due to safety and financial reasons. 

To accommodate social distancing, 158 more teachers and staff would need to be hired to maintain smaller class sizes, which could cost the school district over $8 million. There is not enough space in the school buildings to accommodate all the students while maintaining social distancing, and the town doesn’t own any buildings that could easily be repurposed for this use.

Even if only half the students are in the school at any given time, there are still increased materials costs far beyond the cost of sanitization and cleaning supplies.

Elementary school stand-bys like buckets of crayons are not covid-safe. Instead, each student would need their own dedicated supplies and a designated place to keep them that could easily be cleaned.

Some students usually sit together at five-foot tables, which now could only accommodate one student.

Students are supposed to stay in the same classroom as much as possible, but many rooms, especially in the middle and high schools, can only accommodate students with desks spaced three feet apart. At that distance, students would need to keep their masks on the entire time, meaning that they wouldn’t be able to eat or drink in the classroom. But going to the cafeteria for lunch creates another cascade of logistical issues.Shaver-Hood said the schools are considering changing the time that kids are in school so that it doesn’t overlap with lunch and instead sending kids home with meals. But, since students can’t eat on the bus, a bus monitor would need to hand out food as students got off at home. As Shaver-Hood said, what kid can resist a snack while riding the bus?

Even without the food issue, every bus will need a monitor to enforce social distancing. Shaver-Hood said that the schools have long had a hard time filling those jobs -- those job postings are almost always open. Based on new guidelines from the state, buses will only be able to have about one-third of their usual capacity on any given trip.

And some students are occasionally physically restrained by teachers. To be safe, teachers would have to quickly put on protective gear before touching the student, which would be logistically difficult and expensive over time. 

As such, it is likely that students will at least partially learn remotely, although it is still unclear exactly how the hybrid approach will be carried out.

Remote learning can be especially challenging for students in need of special education services, so a task force has been assembled to create a plan on how to accommodate those students.

Director of Student Services Melissa Fay said that the task force consists of at least one special education staff member and one parent from each school in the district. 

The task force has met twice so far, and is working on two drafts for potential plans. The drafts are not yet available to the public, but Fay explained that the team is tasked with making “research based decisions” to help students who are likely to be more severely impacted by a lack of face to face learning.

This includes students who can’t engage in remote learning due to a disability, students who are homeless, or those whose first language is not English. 

Another challenge with remote learning is simply keeping students engaged and establishing positive relationships between students and teachers. 

School committee members noted that this could be particularly difficult for students who will be transitioning to a new school this fall. 

School Committee Member Apryl Rossi noted that it might be beneficial to reach out to day cares to see if they could accommodate the school district’s remote learning curriculum for young students with working parents. 

For older students, a lack of “external motivation” could also be a problem. Without sports and other extracurricular activities to keep them motivated, some committee members worried about high school students falling behind. 

They also noted that positive relationships with teachers and coaches can be a deciding factor for students who might otherwise choose to drop out. 

High School Principal Scott Palladino added that the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is currently working on a solution to provide sports to students next school year if possible. 

Other challenges faced by schools during the pandemic include limitations on busing, how to create a hybrid in-person and remote learning approach to reopening, and how to teach and enforce mask wearing and social distancing if students return to class. 

The next School Committee workshop meeting will be on Wednesday, July 29 at 4:30 p.m. in the Multi-service Center.