Parents Sound Off About Westfield Reopening Rollout

 

By JENNIFER GLACKIN
Specially Written for The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — More than 300 people attended Tuesday’s virtual board of education meeting, where Superintendent Margaret Dolan, Ed.D., announced more in-person schooling for all Westfield elementary- and middle-school students.

Kindergarten through second-grade students were previously announced to return to in-person learning for five half days on Monday, March 15. Third- through fifth-grade students will return to the same in-person model the following Monday, March 22.

Kindergarten students currently attend a reduced schedule, approximately two hours per day, which will continue in the new five days per week schedule. Parents asked if the hours can be extended to the usual two and half hours per day. Bringing students in the building for five half days safely has been logistically challenging, said Dr. Dolan, referring to all of the programs in each school. After a safe return, however, the superintendent said that the district will “certainly consider it.”

Middle-school students will begin alternating Wednesdays starting March 10. Middle-school special-education students will return to five in-person half days on March 15, with the rest of the middle-school population joining them on Monday, April 12.

The high school will remain four days in-person learning with all-remote Wednesdays through Monday, April 19, according to Superintendent Dolan’s timeline. High-school parents will be surveyed regarding their choice of in-person or remote learning for the fourth marking period. Any decisions for the high school will be made after a review of the survey data.

Dr. Dolan also reported the ongoing steps the district is taking to continue progressing, such as working with the department of health to facilitate vaccinations for teachers. She said she is hopeful the district and the department of health will be able to provide vaccinations in school to those teachers who want it.

The district also will continue to monitor guidance for in-school lunch, which at this time is still considered “high-risk” by the health department, she said. Also, using outdoor spaces for classes, and possibly lunch, is being looked into.

Parents can support these efforts through their parent teacher organizations (PTOS) by helping with fundraising or providing needed resources for their particular school.

Advocating for change at the state level and applying to become district substitutes are two other ways parents can help. Those wishing to help by becoming substitute teachers, secretaries, paraprofessionals or custodians can check the Human Resources tab on the district website.

Superintendent Dolan also presented Westfield’s monthly Covid totals from September 2020 through February of 2021, noting that of the 490 Covid-positive individuals in January, 24 percent of those were in the school community. She also reminded residents of the Covid-19 Hub on the district’s website where people can find all of the guidelines and reopening plans, superintendent communications, board meeting synopses, and the videos of board meetings to address some of the frequently-asked questions about transparency.

Many parents took to the meeting to air their frustration with what they argue is the district’s slow roll-out of the plan, one of whom called it “glacial.” Parent Robert Benacchio said, “What I see is a lot of excuses.” Another parent, Eric Kosta, suggested that Board President Amy Root and Superintendent Dolan step down from their current roles, saying their handling of Covid has been “an abject disaster.” Other parents again pointed to what they maintain is the board’s lack of transparency, asking for more details on the metrics of reopening.

Gretchan Ohlig, who has been a board member for 10 years, addressed the parents’ complaints regarding transparency, saying she felt that using the word “transparency” has become “we’re not telling you what you want to hear.”

Ms. Ohlig continued by saying that Dr. Dolan is the only person with a “bird’s-eye view” of the district. Parents, students, teachers, board members and even principals do not know the inner workings of the other schools, and that she supports the “thoughtful and deliberate way that the district is trying to get our kids back in school.”

Supporters also spoke up during the meeting. Julie Steinberg said that while she has disagreed with board members and administrators about many things, the “vitriol that has been heaped onto Dr. Dolan, the board and the administration” has been difficult to watch. “I do believe,” Ms. Steinberg continued, “that actually a great deal of creativity and thoughtfulness has been provided, and an enormous amount of hard work” has gone into reopening the schools. Monica Bergin praised Dr. Dolan for always having the students’ interests at the forefront of her decisions and for giving “every consideration possible.”

There will be a budget presentation at the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, March 16.

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