Summer Update - Plans in progress for Fall 2020

I hope this newsletter finds your and your family healthy and safe during these complex times. I have included in this update information regarding starting the school year with remote learning, the status of and my thoughts on the planning process for the fall, community engagement (including a link to the current return to school survey issued in July) and likely changes to the school calendar. Things are changing rapidly and I know as soon as I send this email, there will be more to share. For the most up to date information, please refer to the Superintendent summer communications or follow me on Facebook

Start with Remote Learning: SPS schools will begin the 2020-2021 school year with full remote learning as the initial phase of our reopening model. The decision has been made with respect to safety. Specifically, an assessment of school buildings has determined the buildings cannot be retrofitted before the start of school to meet ventilation and filtration needs. Additionally, the city cannot implement a virus testing protocol in time for an early September start, necessary to identify and track possible virus transmission in the school community. In the effort to return students to in-person learning in the future, the city and SPS will continue the work to bring buildings online and establish a virus testing system, along with securing Personal Protective Equipment and designing safety protocols and new school operating procedures. Additionally, public health professionals are developing community metrics to track and assess the viability of in-person education, based on the progression of the virus and transmission rates. 

Although I am disappointed that we will begin the year with full remote learning, specifically for our students who we know struggle most with remote learning, I believe this was our only choice in the interest of the health and safety of our community. I will continue to advocate and support planning for returning students to our schools, when safety concerns have been addressed and the status of the virus transmission allows. 

Planning: I understand that many are frustrated waiting for plans and decisions. The state has been slow and incomplete with guidance and has left the bulk of decision making up to individual towns and cities, each burdened with the task of defining parameters and consulting experts. Some districts have publicized plans before completing negotiations with their collective bargaining units and have had to redo plans, which are not finalized. Conditions of buildings in other districts may be in different and other districts may have different expectations regarding the importance of virus testing. Somerville continues to pursue several elements in their planning process, but the three primary are (1) defining, assessing and implementing conditions for a safe physical return, (2) planning curriculum and instruction for both in-person and remote learning in collaboration with staff, (3) engaging with stakeholders, staff and families regarding status of planning and concerns. As decisions are made, they will be shared. 

There has been criticism of the district and those with differing opinions regarding in-person education. I encourage the constructive debate and sharing of thoughts and concerns with SC, the City, SPS and the community. Direct outreach is also being done with members of the school community that are traditionally underrepresented. Feedback is appreciated and taken seriously. Please know that district administration is all hands on deck -- working long days and weeks addressing concerns from improving communications to securing tents for outdoor learning spaces. 

There is no debate that schools must be safe for students and staff, and that in person learning is the best for students, but we cannot have the second without the first. Until building ventilation is addressed and a virus testing plan is implemented it is not safe for large groups of students and staff to return to school in-person. Although members of the community have diverse perspectives on the conditions necessary to return to in-person learning, the city, district and the SC will continue to utilize science, data, and the advice of experts in public health and virus transmission in decision making. 

Although the decision has been made to begin school with remote learning, I see an opportunity, assuming appropriate safety measures, for targeted in-person activities. I would support plans to, as quickly as possible, phase-in targeted in-person learning for students who we know struggle most with remote learning. This could include students with special needs, those learning english, those with home environments not conducive to remote learning, and our youngest students starting with pre-K-2nd grade. Additionally, I would support scheduling in-person relationship building, possibly outdoors, between teachers and families or limited groups of classmates. 

Families were understanding but also frustrated by their experiences with the emergency remote learning this spring. It is clear that more structure and increased expectations are necessary. This could include schedules, daily synchronous learning (live instruction), supplimental asynchronous learning (prerecordered), and collaboration with peers. All plans will be developed based on DESE guidelines and in collaboration with district collective bargaining units. We are fortunate to have innovative educators and creative staff who are committed to determining the best ways to safely educate our students during this pandemic. 

The district has announced that it will support students who choose 100% remote learning, over any in-person programming that may be offered in the future. For families that choose to take a year off from SPS schooling, I would support maintaining their seat in the student’s SPS program or school.  

SPS has offered staff professional development throughout the summer focused on remote learning, racial equity and cultural competency, social emotional learning, building community remotely and developing and delivering content in a remote learning environment. I look forward to the collaboration with our innovative and dedicated staff on plans to deliver the most effective remote learning to reach all our students and the phase in of in-person learning, as implementation of safety measures and the status of virus transmission allow. 

Community Engagement: In addition to the weekly SC meetings consisting of updates and significant public comment, the Mayor and Superintendent are hosting/have hosted town hall meetings (recorded to view later), both multi-lingual and English, that include updates and Q&A. I will be participating in a Town Hall for families with students with special needs, hosted by the Somerville Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SSPAC) this Thursday August 6th. Visit the SPS SC Meetings web page to learn more about how to sign up for public comment during our virtual meetings. Our SFLC/parent liaisons have been doing direct outreach to families that may not access these virtual platforms. If you know of a family that needs more information, services or support please refer them to the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative (SFLC)

Also, please take the time to fill out the SPS Family Survey on Reopening Models if you have not done so already. You can also review the findings from the June family survey, and find links to recording of past town halls and all Superintendent communications on the SPS Fall 2020 Back to School Planning webpage

School Calendar: The state has offered relief on the 180 day teaching requirement, allowing for up to an additional 10 days for planning and PD prior to teaching students. Although changes to the school calendar have yet to be reviewed or approved by the SC,  the start date for school will likely be pushed out from September 2nd. Administration has stated they will propose September 18th for SC consideration this coming Monday evening. Watch for a formal notice from the district for any changes in the SPS school calendar for 2020-2021.  

Thanks to all for your engagement and patience during these scary and frustrating times. Please do not hesitate to contact me, or any other member of the School Committee if you have questions or concerns to share.

Do you like this post?
Laura Pitone for Ward 5 School Committee
Keep informed about the campaign by signing up below