WILMINGTON, MA — At the most recent School Committee Meeting, Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand offered some thoughts around whether a return to full-time, in-person school was feasible for Wilmington students during the next four months. Brand’s approach, in a word, is “pragmatic.”
“It is certainly my clear understanding that throughout many communities, there is talk that’s starting to shift to the focus of returning to school. Fortunately, we are a community that is open for in-person learning for those families who have opted to have their children in school,” began Brand. “Unfortunately, there are lots of districts that are still remote. Nevertheless, it’s not lost upon me with vaccinations soon to be coming for educators as part of Phase 2, the shift of thinking on how we can return more of our students to in-person learning is at the forefront. Equally so, however, is the planning for next year. I know we’re almost a year into this, but it will be time to plan for next year, sooner than later.”
“While I don’t think we should be waiting for specific guidance — whether that be from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the CDC, or the Department of Education — there are some significant realities of those agencies and the guidance, recommendations and limitations they provide that we really have to work and abide by. That’s not to say I think we should wait for those, but I think it’s important to point out there are significant limitations there,” continued Brand.
Despite the fact that vaccinations are coming, Brand cites “practicalities and realities” that remain a detriment to a full-time return for all students, including social distance requirements on school buses and in classrooms.
“There are great limitations on how we can restructure the current things we have in place now. I recognize we need to start to prepare what that might look like,” added Brand. “But we also have to temper that to a degree and realize there are certain restrictions that we need in place and need to understand clearly before we can make profound changes to what we’re currently offering.”
Brand cautioned against comparing Wilmington with other school districts.
“Other communities may be offering more in-person learning for particular segments of the population. Context matters. How modern the school building is? More modern buildings generally have larger classroom spaces. Variation in classroom space could make huge difference,” explained Brand. “The other consideration is transportation. The reliance on transportation for students to arrive to school each day is considerably different from one district to the next. I would caution folks as they start to hear some communities are able to do this and why not us. There are contextual factors that matter and could make a difference.”
“I have no additional information that anyone else does if you’re closely monitoring the discussions at the state and federal levels,” Brand added. “Our first priority is what can we do in the next couple of months.”
Brand promised to come back to the Committee with more refined thoughts about what it would take to reopen Wilmington schools beyond their current state. Brand also stressed that mental health and wellness will be a priority when in-person learning returns, as will identifying learning loss and making the necessary adjustments.
Parents Ask For A Plan For Return To Full-Time In-Person Learning
Several parents offered public comments at the meeting — a mix of written and in-person — asking that a conversation begin on bringing Wilmington students back to school buildings on a full-time basis.
“I am here to offer help and support from a group of parents that are looking to partner with the administration and teachers to create plans for a safe return back to school full-time,” said parent Szu Tasto. “We’re looking to work together to create transparent and concrete plans on how a safe return to school will occur. How do we plan for DESE’s 3-foot guidance? We’re looking to understand what limitations exist and how we can partner to remove barriers to support all of our children.”
“Let’s not look to follow surrounding towns, but instead push ourselves as leaders, offering the best in-class approach,” added Tasto. “Let’s dream of what we can achieve together: Students learning from teachers in a classroom filled with their friends. Children feeling confident in their skills. Students and teachers feeling connected to one another. Pride among teachers, administration, School Committee members and parents about what our town achieved. We’re looking to partner together.”
“What can we do to bring our kids back in person? The evidence is clear that the risk is low and the costs are high the longer our kids are outside the classroom,” asked parent Darcy Martin. “This is our change to be innovative, creative, forward-thinking leaders. We want surrounding towns to say, Wilmington is really doing that right, or let’s follow Wilmington’s example.”
“There’s some tremendous parents in this community, and we’re thinking creatively and outside the box on potential ways to get our kids back in school. We would love to work together with all of you in this process and I’m asking that you’re willing to accept parent feedback and have an open, honest, two-way conversation about what is best for our students and staff,” continued Martin. “While further guidelines are forthcoming, we must not wait. If we’ve learned anything over the last 11 months, there will be no magical email or announcement that answers all of our questions. We need to use the information we have in hand to determine what is best at getting our kids back in the classroom. This approach needs to look at the individual building and classroom level. The administration shouldn’t make these decisions in a bubble. Involvement from each teacher, staff member and parent is crucial. They will have the direct knowledge as to what can work and can’t work.”
“I’m begging the folks in this room to start a dialogue with us, and the broader Wilmington Public Schools community, about what it will take to get our kids back in school full-time,” stressed Martin. “How will vaccines affect the plan? Can 3 feet distance with masks be supported? What about additional PPE like plexiglass desk barriers? How can pool testing be implemented? Can lunches and snack breaks be set up outside or in spare spaces? Will parents support decreased transportation options? Opportunities to bring back our youngest learners first? What are the timelines? Again, I want to emphasize this isn’t about parents vs. teachers vs. administrators, this is about working towards a common cause, which is giving our children the best possible education during this difficult time. Time is of the essence and we ask for your transparency. Other districts are already planning. Let’s be leaders together, Wilmington.”
“Why is it that Wilmington is always the last district to plan?,” asked parent Christine Lemieux. “Many other districts have already made plans to return fully in person this current year. The current data in the town suggests that it would be safe to do so. There are no reasons why a 3-feet distance could not be approved in order to finish the year on a strong note… Teachers should have the ability to be vaccinated in the near future and as soon as that’s done, they have no more excuses not to return to work with a full class. Stop destroying kids’ lives and make them go back to school full time!”
“At this point we are nearing the one year mark in which our children have not been in school full time. This is not the time to wait for new guidelines from DESE — we need to plan now,” urged parent Caroline Fitzgibbons. “We should be surveying parents on their level of comfort with narrowing the distance to 3 feet in the classroom. We should be surveying teachers to know who will return to school full time if all the teachers are vaccinated. We have all the other information we need — the CDC and medical community have stated and agree that our children have suffered and need to get back to school as soon as possible.”
“The lack of transparency explaining the hurdles preventing our kids from attending full time in-person school is beyond frustrating. Is it the teachers union? DESE? Dr. Brand? What are the actual problems so that we might work towards solutions,” asked parent Kim Laing? “Find a way to fix this. Not for me, but for my child, and all the children in our town. They deserve better. Shame on the obstructionists. Need is the mother of invention. Create a new path. Do it for the kids. Their social and emotional health depends on it.”
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