After hearing from several parents anxious to see the Watertown Public Schools open for in-person learning as soon as possible, the School Committee did not adjust the Oct. 27 reopening date for elementary schools. However, they will look into moving up the date for middle and high school students from late November.
Monday night, about a dozen people spoke during public forum during the virtual School Committee meeting. Most parents said they would like to see the hybrid part of the school year (where students alternate days between in-person and remote learning) and pointed to the low rate of COVID-19 in Watertown. A few parents supported waiting to make sure the COVID-19 infection rates remain low.
One parent, Owen Murphy, presented a petition he started late the previous week, which was signed by 167 people by the time of the meeting. The petition asked that the School Committee be flexible and look at the COVID data and consider starting hybrid earlier than called for in the plan.
Some parents said that younger kids, in particular, struggle with learning on Zoom, and that families where parents have to work have a hard time keeping children engaged.
Teachers who participated said the would love to be back with their students, but one said that hybrid may not be what people envision. The high school teacher said she would only see half a class once a week, and students will have to be six feet apart and it will not be as easy to work collaboratively as it is in Zoom breakout rooms. Another teacher said he wants to be back in school, but said because his age puts him into a higher risk category for the virus he would worry about going back to in-person classes.
School Committee Discussion
Members of the School Committee acknowledged the comments from parents, teachers and others. More than one noted that this is a very difficult situation, and no decision will please everyone.
School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said she would like to see the administration look at moving up the dates for the start of hybrid for some levels.
“The past five weeks the metrics have remained low, the buildings are ready, testing is in place, child care has been provided (for teachers), PPE has been purchased. I would like the district to show some flexibility, and make little adjustments to the dates,” Foley said.
Particularly, Foley said she would like to see the middle school hybrid start date moved to Nov. 2, a few weeks earlier than the Nov. 30 date in the current plan. Also, she said the district should make a priority for keeping the youngest students (preK, kindergarten and first grade) moved back as early as possible, and if the district has to go back to full getting these groups back in the classroom should be a priority.
Some students have already started in-person learning. Director of Student Services Kathy Desmarais said that about 240 students who need to in person learning, particularly special education students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs) including those with autism. Also, some English as a second language students have returned, as has the preschool program, which integrates special needs students with mainstream students.
School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said that the community COVID-19 reporting map with different colors that has been stressed by state education officials should not be the only measure for when Watertown should reopen for in-person learning.
“I think it is clear Watertown is interested in more than just that one number,” Mosca said. “What are the other numbers we are looking at?”
Lily Rayman-Read, a School Committee member who is a teacher in Cambridge, said that she would like to see more transparency in terms of what numbers School officials are looking at and where they stand now.
“In Cambridge they are using three metrics, and there is a dashboard updating daily so it is out in the public,” Rayman-Read said.
Superintendent Dede Galdston said the numbers being looked at are the COVID-19 infection rate over a three week period in Watertown, infections over the past three weeks in Middlesex County, and having a positive test rate in Watertown of less than 3 percent of the total tests administered.
“I consider this to be week one,” Galdston said. “If we continue where we are for next two weeks, then I think we are ready to move (into hybrid).”
Galdston was also asked about how what numbers she would look at for the “Cunniff West,” the school’s temporary location during construction at the former St. Jude’s School. The school is located in Waltham, which has been yellow on the state map for moderate risk. She said she considers it Watertown because the students are all from Watertown.
Rayman-Read added that she would support looking at the dates for middle and high schools to start hybrid, but she would not change the start date for elementary school students.
“We are doing our best, the teachers need time to transition,” Rayman-Read said. “The flip between going from virtual to hybrid is not an easy one … it takes planning, it takes time, it takes preparation. Doing that is not something that we do on dime.”
Town Council President Mark Sideris, who is also a School Committee member, said he would like to see the decision made at the next School Committee meeting.
“I do agree flexibility is something we should be continuing to discuss,” Sideris said. “I do think we do need to wait until our meeting two weeks from (Monday). Plans are in place. We are trying to provide the best education we can in terrible environment.”
Watertown schools will host open houses during the month of October, said Assistant Superintendent Theresa McGuinness.
The elementary schools will be on Tuesday, Oct. 13, with the first half hour being a grade level presentation, and the second half hour homeroom based meeting.
- 4:30-5:30 p.m. Fifth grade
- 5-6 p.m. Third grade
- 5:30-6:30 p.m. First grade
- 6-7 p.m. Kindergarten
- 6:30-7:30 p.m. Fourth grade
- 7-8 p.m. Second grade
Watertown Middle School will hold its open house on Oct. 22. Administration and guidance will have a 20 minute presentation at 5:40 p.m. Parents will also hear about World Language, Reading, Specialists, Performance Music.
- Sixth grade 6 p.m.
- Seventh grade 7 p.m.
- Eighth grade 8 p.m.
Watertown High School’s open house will be held on Oct. 15. Families will follow their students’ schedules through all blocks, A-G. Classes meet for 10 minutes each with 5 minute breaks in between. Links to teacher’s Zooms will be posted on the WHS website.
Early Steps preschool will have an open house on Oct. 14 from 6:30-7:30 p.m.