The Watertown Public Schools will get close to $3 million to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and School officials want to hear from the community about what sorts of things they would like to see the money spent on.
As part of the federal American Rescue Plan, the Watertown Public Schools received an allocation of $2,868,929 which can be spent through June 2024. It is part of the third pandemic relief package for schools, known as Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief III or ESSER III. The money can be spent to support safe reopening of schools and sustaining safe schools, as well as helping students with their academic, social, emotional and mental health needs.
Superintendent Dede Galdston said that the grant application for ESSER III requires feedback from residents. She sent out a link to a survey that can be taken until Thursday, Sept. 30 (click here to see the survey).
Along with asking parents and others for their thoughts, on Monday, Galdston asked the School Committee to weigh in on some of the suggested uses made by state and federal officials, and make some of their own.
Town Council President Mark Sideris, who is also a member of the School Committee, said he thought the focus should be on the academic side, because the district has already taken steps to make schools safe, such as installing air purifiers and purchasing PPE and other equipment.
“Most important is catching kids up, giving them what every they need,” Sideris said. “Whatever we can give them, including the teachers and educators, whatever they need to get them back from a whole year that they basically missed.”
Some of the suggested uses from the state include vacation and summer break catch-up courses. School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said she worries about the equity of those sorts of programs because not all students are able to participate, even if the are free.
“I am interested in things we can provide children during the school day, that doesn’t just mean training for educators we already have,” Mosca said. “Who else can we bring into the school during these flexible times for both intervention for kids who are struggling and enrichment for kids who aren’t struggling?”
Adding a program such as universal preschool or another Career Technical Education (CTE) program could be a place to spend the money, said School Committee member David Stokes. Watertown High School is in the process of adding two CTE programs, one is a medical assistant program and the other is an engineering technology program.
“It could be seed money for some other program, like another CTE program or universal preschool,” Stokes said. “I am not sure where I fall. I want to do both of them.”
Some of the money should be used to make the staff in the Watertown Schools more diverse, said School Committee member Lily Rayman-Read.
“When we talk about long term investment, I would like us to see some work on diversifying our educator force,” Rayman-Read said. “I think that is something that the community has indicated as a need — not just a nice to have, but a need to have.”
School Committee Vice Chair Kendra Foley said she likes the idea of adding staff and programs to help students, but she warned that the money won’t last forever.
“We need to think about our fiscal planning, we need to avoid creating a cliff for ourselves,” Foley said. “Whatever we end up doing, we should make sure we are making investments in the schools that are not operational, or invest over time when the school budget is built so that they don’t have to be cut in three years.”
Galdston said the money could certainly be used to create a pilot program or programs.
“If we want to commit to a universal preschool program this is a great way to take us to that point,” Galdston said. “We are in a position where we don’t have the full (financial) impact, as opposed to we need $800,000 in one year — that’s never going to happen. We can gradually step it in.”
School Committee Chair John Portz agreed, and said that a good example of a program that started small and then grew incrementally over the years is the coaches who work with teachers on certain subjects and grade levels.
See the full scope of the ESSER III requirements here: https://www.doe.mass.edu/federalgrants/esser/