The school board meeting this week had two major topics – the elementary school re-opening plan and the preliminary 2021-2022 budget. I have not finished listening to the called in comments the board read until after midnight last night – the meeting is over 5 hours long.
General business first
- SRS is having its virtual book fair through Feb 14th.
- NPE is doing its 25th jump rope for heart socially distanced.
- The middle school is highlighting black musicians over school speakers
- The green haven club is selling re-usable straws
- There’s a mindset matters for students at the high school on Feb 17th
- The board voted on the 2021-2022 calendar with the start after Labor Day and without the asynchronous day on Election Day. It was not specified at the meeting what they did with that teaching day. They noted that there are 2 weather days built into the calendar, as in previous years.
- The superintendent search has closed with 32 applicants. First round interviews are starting and they will eventually meet with 10 candidates.
Focus topic, elementary school reopening.
- The board first heard from Dr. Rubin and Dr. Kaufmann, experts from the CHOP policy lab. Dr. Rubin is optimistic that the worst of Covid is behind us, but cautioned that little is known so far about Covid variants, at least one of which has been found in Pennsylvania.
- The experts suggested focusing on protocols that work – distancing, mask use, keeping sick children at home and played down the importance of cleaning and ventilation changes as less impactful.
- The CHOP policy lab is helping the school district implement a rapid testing system. The focus will be on testing teachers first, then athletes and students unable to wear a mask for medical/developmental reasons. It will be about 3 weeks before the staff is trained to administer the test. It sounded like the test will be voluntary, and scheduling may be difficult as the test takes 15 minutes to administer. The accuracy of the test was not discussed except to say its less accurate than slower testing. It is hoped to have staff testing in place before full in person starts, but the district made no promises.
- The plan is for full day school 4 days a week with a half day on Wednesday (the other half would be asynchronous). No lunches would be served in school on Wednesday, but both AM and PM kindergarten would attend.
- The discussions indicated the Wednesday half day was necessary to allow for Online Academy testing in person as needed (there may be other reasons, but it wasn’t clear).
- The plan calls for 3′ distancing from center of desk to center of desk with 6′ distancing for high risk times. High risk times are lunch, mask breaks and snacks. It was not clear how they would 6′ distance for snacks if eating them in a classroom where they are 3′ distanced. The medical experts had little to say about the safety of 3′ distancing – there’s still a debate about how safe it is. There will be about 20-27 students per class.
- Teachers and other adults would continue to maintain 6′ distancing.
- All students would have a transparent plastic barrier around their desk (they were calling it a cubby).
- Students absent from in-person under this plan for ❤ days would be treated as normal absence (as previous years), if longer than 3 days attending via zoom will be considered on a case by case basis. If exposed, students will need to quarantine for 14 days (the district has no current plans to use a proposed 7 day quarantine with a negative test)
- It is unknown if the state is requiring the PSSA’s. If they are, Online Academy students will have to go in person to take the tests.
- The instruction schedule will remain mostly unchanged but specials are still a work in progress. Instruction time will not change and the Online Academy and in-person will remain in sync.
- Students will need to bring their devices to school charged every day to be able to use them in the classroom.
- Recess will be held with classes separated with their own equipment. No mixing of classes.
- Schedules will be staggered to reduce congestion and transportation protocols are being looked at to reduce lines.
- School will be sprayed with disinfectant twice weekly and heavily used surfaces cleaned daily, including the playground.
- The school has made changes to the HVAC system to improve circulation.
- Timeline: Feb 9-15 a binding survey will be sent to parents, you will have to decide now whether to be Online Academy or in person. Feb 16-19 the district will analyze survey results. Feb 22nd, board meeting to decide on whether to adopt the new plan. March 1-12 parents will hear transition plans to in-person (new teachers, bus routes, etc.). March 15-17 will be asynch days with schools closed for preparation to in person. March 18th, in person would begin. The staff highlighted that teachers and administrators have a lot of preparation work to do to prepare for in person learning.
- Teacher assignments will not change unless there is a lot of movement between the Online Academy and in person. New staff may need to be hired, but may be difficult as there are few candidates and it takes several weeks.
- A question was asked about where students are in the curriculum compared to normal, and the answer was that they were pretty much where they usually were.
Still very preliminary. They covered a lot of the numbers from before, but a few new ones.
- The governor’s budget has been announced since the last meeting. It would give education more funding, but Republicans in the state legislature have already declared it dead.
- As of June of 2020, the district had $8.5 million in reserve (compared to budget of $89 million). The projected balance at the end of the next budget would be $4.1 million, so it would spend half the existing reserve, which was being held for upcoming capital projects. This means there is no longer sufficient funds for needed capital projects.
- Unreimbursed Covid expenses has cost $2.2 million of that deficit (another $1.6 million has been covered by grants). This is where the much discussed failure of the feds to fund local government Covid needs is hitting our district.
- The millage increase allowed for this year’s budget is 2.6%, plus 1.7% for the special education allowance. This total would be an increase of 1.116 mills over the reassessment base of 25.6727, or 4.3% increase. Here in Garden City, this means about a 10% total increase for many of us due to increases from the re-assessment hitting us.
- Kelly Wachtman noted that that this situation is pretty dire. Even with this large tax increase, the budget is facing a large shortfall eating into its reserves. Other districts are in even worse shape, but its not good for WSSD and painful cuts are coming.
- The administration noted that if the reserve continues to fall it will impact the district’s bond rating and borrowing costs.
I haven’t listened to all the comments (there’s still another 2 hours of them to go), but the board did read petitions from the WSEA and WSEPA, groups representing teachers and support staff. Over 300 signed onto the petitions opposing the full re-opening of school suggesting extensive opposition from within the district.