We hear from School Committee members, Supt. Meyer and parents
At the School Committee meeting Tuesday, March 2, Supt. Alexis Meyer outlined “recent changes and future planning efforts” for the district, including the decision announced days earlier to have middle and high school students attend school on Mondays instead of having those days be “asynchronous.”
She also spoke of needing to get a better handle on how many students were currently distance learning and how many were coming into the buildings, in order to maximize space. And Meyer said she planned to reconvene some members of the reopening steering committee and the work groups to prepare for updated reopening guidance from the state.
“If for some reason we don’t have guidelines that say we can resume all in-person, what do we have to do to consider that?” she said. “What kind of schedules do we have to consider that would allow students to attend five days a week.”
This follows the formation in the district of a parent group (EG Parents for In-Person Learning) urging a return to full in-person learning; more than 500 people have signed their online petition.
What followed were a number of voices, from members of the School Committee and parents, on how the district proceeds. We offer some excerpts here:
Chairwoman Anne Musella:
We are at that point [where] there’s going to be a conversation about why do we have to have all this mitigation when there’s so little spread? The answer to that is, there’s so little spread because we’ve been good with our mitigation strategies. I do think this conversation … might have been a little bit different if, god forbid, we had had even one fatality in our school community.
Vice Chairwoman Lori McEwen:
We’ve heard from many parents that they find asynchronous learning to be very disruptive, their children aren’t engaged. We’ve heard from children and parents who say [alternatively], this is great. They are exerting some control over how, when and where they are learning and it’s working really well…. As we enter our strategic planning process I think we should really keep an eye on those things that really are working…. There are also many downsides. [Students] want to be back learning in groups, facing one another, not at three feet, six feet distance…. We’re hearing about students and their mental health…. [At a future meeting, we should] hear about how we’re supporting students, get some data on how students have been reached and in the aggregate how we’ve been able to support them because we know that that has been really troubling….
Committee Member Kevin Murphy:
There are a number of considerations. I received a hyperlink with regard to a high school in Ohio and what they’re doing in Ohio and how they’re being creative and innovative. [In the CDC guidelines] I did see phrases like, “to the extent possible” … If it is not possible to create 6 feet of distance, then I think the CDC and RIDE guidelines allow some creativity. We went from full in-person to full distance last March and that was impressive…. I do want to be more aggressive. We moved mountains in March of 2020 and I’d like to move mountains again…. We need to start to invent, create.… We hear you [parents]. As a parent and School Committee member I did see opportunities in the guidelines to be more aggressive and I hope we take that tack.
Committee Member Alyson Powell:
I don’t think anyone disagrees. That’s why we’ve taken a more aggressive approach than many, many other districts and more aggressive than the more conservative guidelines would indicate. We didn’t insist on 6 feet if we could get 3 and we had other mitigation factors…. When we look at that COVID data, when we were asked to submit our reopening plans [last summer], our municipal cases incidences per 100,000 were below 5. Similarly on Sept. 13 and 14, when we officially reopened, our case incidences were below 5. Not 5 percent – 5, per 100,000. We were in what the CDC was calling “moderate risk” at that point. And the state cutoff was 100 cases per 100,000. That was considered too dangerous to reopen. In our past 7 day average in East Greenwich, we’re at 260 [per 100,000]. So, our cases, while much lower than they were a month or a month and a half ago, are exponentially higher than they were when we reopened with all these mitigation factors in place to keep our kids safe.
I’m not sure how, without guidance from the CDC and RIDE, how to consider relaxing those until we are in at least the position we were when we started. We just aren’t. That’s the data; those are the cases. If we felt we needed these then to keep us safe, I’m not sure why we would consider removing them now when we’re so close to the finish line…. I am not trying to dismiss any of the hardship but those are just the straight facts. You wanted metrics. There they are. That’s what they say. That’s where we are. I know it’s hard to say, but without any more guidance … the only way to be any more open than we are right now is for COVID to abate or for everyone to be vaccinated.
“I’m listening, I’m hearing the feedback…. [we’ve had maybe 1,200 people – parents and students, sign petitions in the past week]. We didn’t have anywhere near the response rate to our surveys about distance learning and other stuff. Maybe 25 percent. And they were largely positive. I want to encourage members of the community to take advantage of the opportunities to provide us feedback. There are opportunities to collaborate. We’ve been asked to provide what are our metrics are and what’s our plan? The metrics are community spread and our own mitigation measures [and soon we will add a vaccine metric]. To those who say let’s work harder, let’s be creative, there’s only so much that we can do.
Among the parents who commented was Nicole Bucka, who spoke at the beginning of the meeting about what she said were the continuing inequities facing students with learning disabilities, particularly in light of what she saw was action by the school administration to end asynchronous Mondays that followed days after a parent petition was created including that request:
“Is EG Parents for In-Person Learning a formal advisory group like SEAC [Special Education Advisory Committee]? No. But they achieved action … and quickly. I ask you all to reflect. Reflect on why that is. The achievement gap isn’t about students with IEPs performing less than, or about students without IEPS performing better. It’s about marginalization. It’s about an educational debt over time…. We have a history in this district of this kind of behavior. As soon as a sport is being cut, or choir is being cut, or now in-person learning, the dominant, majority, privileged group yells and the district comes running. Decades of this – one group mattering more than others and the others disregarded while all the objective measures indicate they should be prioritized…. It is clear to me by your actions who matters. So when I say the words implicit bias and discrimination, I’d rather have you hear how I feel. I feel I cannot trust this system with my children.
Later in the meeting, other parents spoke, including:
What’s the greatest risk to the highest number of students… COVID transmission or mental health for our students? … It is clear that forces exist that will counter or dismiss this crisis. They will seek to obfuscate this discussion with fear, bias, or victimization, rather than embark on the innovative thinking to address this actionable, societal responsibility, which is foundationally a risk-management challenge. I implore you to be courageous and resist such forces that would gamble our students’ mental health and well-being as a wager in politically-motivated agendas…. This movement and discussion will not go away. I would warn that groups that attempt to play politics with this discussion may be analogous to getting between a bear and her cub for parents that are seeing harmful manifestations….
Sara, a member of EG Parents for In-Person Learning, quoted three parents talking about how the current educational offerings were affecting their children:
“My children are suffering from depression. One has started with an eating disorder while another barely leaves their room. They have become unmotivated with no desire to go to school on the two [in-person] days. Their outlook on education has turned negative. They have horrible sleeping habits.”
“My child at the high school became so anxious and depressed that she could not fall asleep at night. She became increasingly difficult to wake in the morning. She began harming herself and developed suicidal ideation.”
“The current model is significantly harming my daughter’s mental health. I’ve watched her withdraw from friends and family, cry, lose interest in favorite activities, and go from an independent, straight-A student to having me on top of her classwork so she doesn’t keep missing assignments and getting zeroes.… She is now on prescription medication for anxiety and depression and she is only 11. She needs to be in school for face-to-face learning and daily interactions with friends.”
Sarah Flynn, another member of EG Parents for In-Person Learning, offered additional quotes from parents about their children:
“My student who has an IEP student experiences such social isolation that they don’t know when their loneliness will ever end. The school’s policy of sequestering them in a separate classroom with a screen two days a week in order to comply with the state’s mandate that students with IEPs be given a full in-person instruction is a dishonest farce.”
“My daughter sleeps late Monday morning, participates in minimal work, no in-person or distance instruction. Teachers don’t know her name; it is now March. At times she’s alone in a classroom and a teacher is distance learning. She hates going to school now; she leaves early on Fridays because there is no point to staying for the advisory last period. In fact she has been encouraged to leave.”
“My son recently experienced a panic attack which never happened prior to hybrid learning for him. We found him behind the wheel of the car, stopped in the driveway on his way to school. He was overwhelmed, emotional and panicked but had no idea why. He was confused and struggling because he couldn’t find words to describe what he was feeling or why. Finally we got him back in the house, calmed him down and he slept for hours.”
At the end of the public comment, Chairwoman Musella and Supt. Meyer offered final words:
This is indeed the restart of a conversation as we move forward. I appreciate everyone who was here and participated in the conversation.
I care deeply for every child in the district. When I hear some of the reports, some of the situations that we have heard this evening.… I want to encourage parents to reach out to me personally if necessary, or to their school principal or to the guidance counselors. This district is equipped to help families and students. We certainly have the ability to prioritize students that need that. I encourage you to call me directly. And I will provide the necessary recommendation to you how do we support these children – we can do it.
The School Committee next meets for a budget workshop on Tuesday. Below find the district’s infographic “EGSD In-Person Learning Metrics and Protocols.” To be able to access all the available links, click on this version: Covid Metrics and Protocols.