Westfield to Expand In-Person Learning, Parents Voice Concerns

 

By JENNIFER GLACKIN
Specially Written for The Leader/Times

WESTFIELD — At Tuesday evening’s board of education meeting, Superintendent Margaret Dolan, Ed.D., announced students in kindergarten, first and second grades would be able to attend school on a half-day, in-person basis five days per week starting Monday, March 15. Third- through fifth-grade students will follow at a later date, although no timeline was given.

Plexiglass dividers will be installed in smaller classrooms where six-foot social distancing is not feasible. The dividers will be individualized to the classrooms and age levels of the students to ensure the safest possible environment, said Dr. Dolan.

The plexiglass dividers will not affect who will be considered a “close contact.” Anyone within six feet, Dr. Dolan said, will be quarantined if there is a positive case. She noted that other districts using plexiglass dividers are following the same procedure.

Each school will have its own arrival and dismissal procedures, and principals will be communicating those plans to parents.

The district’s medical professionals, pediatrician Dr. Susan Kaye, regional Health Officer Megan Avallone, and District Nursing Coordinator Carol Stavitski, advised the district to continue with a half-day schedule to avoid incorporating lunch, as eating with others is considered a high-risk activity for Covid-19 transmission, reported Dr. Dolan. In addition to the health officials’ advice, there are other concerns. Staffing each classroom during lunch time and providing spaces where teachers can eat safely are among the obstacles, noted board member Robert Garrison, who is on the restart committee.

The virtual meeting had nearly 600 community participants, many of whom expressed their disappointment in the district’s progress in returning students to the classrooms. Multiple parents stated that the district is “failing” the students with its current plan.

Many callers questioned the decision to continue with half-day learning, pointing to local private schools and public schools in New York and Connecticut that have been able to incorporate lunch. Parents suggested solutions such as sending students home for lunch, splitting classes into separate lunch and recess groups or setting up outdoor tents as the weather warms up.

Others said the district lacked transparency and details in its plan, particularly regarding the absence of return dates for third through fifth grade and no return plan announced for middle schools.
Westfield High School students returned to four-days-per-week learning two weeks ago, but parents voiced concern about the learning environment. Parent Vanessa Schwartz described the high-school classroom experience as “remote learning in school rather than face to face.”

The social and emotional toll on students was another concern for parents. “We are robbing these children of their social and emotional health,” said Shannon Llewellyn-Jones, a parent of two elementary students and a middle-school student. Students of all ages are crying out of frustration with remote school or learning alone in their rooms, she said, urging the district to move faster in returning children to the classrooms.

While most callers praised the teachers’ efforts during this difficult year, one parent asked if the slow return was a result of pushback from the teachers’ union. Kim Dickey, a counselor at Roosevelt Intermediate School, district parent and vice-president of the Westfield Education Association (WEA), called in saying that while the teachers initially had concerns about ventilation, masks and sanitation, those have been addressed by the district.

“There is no pushback by the teachers’ association,” said Ms. Dickey. “We want our students back, and we want them back safely.” Board Vice President Brendan Galligan said the WEA has been cooperative, professional and collaborative throughout the process.

“There are a lot of factors being weighed here,” said Board President Amy Root. Ms. Root noted that Dr. Dolan and the administrative staff do listen and consider various ideas prior to making decisions.

Dr. Dolan took note of parents’ questions, concerns and ideas and said responses and clarifications would be posted on the website as soon as possible.

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