Dracut schools prepare for possibility of long closure, affirm continued pay

The Dracut School Committee met virtually for the first time Monday night to discuss schools’ response efforts in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
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DRACUT — In its first ever virtual meeting Monday night, the School Committee received an update on the district’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and voted unanimously to affirm that all full- and part-time district employees will continue to receive pay throughout the shutdown the virus has spurred.

The session was recorded Monday evening and later posted online for members of the public to view, a new format for public meetings allowed under a recent suspension of certain open meeting laws in light of the health crisis.

Superintendent Steven Stone told the committee Monday that a group of key administrators, directors and staff has been communicating daily about the evolving issues the district is facing in its efforts to continue delivering educational support and services to students during the shutdown. Though the date Gov. Charlie Baker has set for schools to reopen is April 7, he said staff are creating contingency plans to prepare for the possibility of a longer closure.

“While the classroom lights may be off in the school, the collective creativity and passion of the Dracut Public Schools has been lit up in response to this extraordinary and unprecedented event,” Stone said.

The district has launched a meals program, which is providing about 150 bagged breakfasts and lunches to students each day, according to Stone. At this point, the meals are not free for everyone, as schools are subject to a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that districts can be reimbursed for the meals only if 50% or more of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, he said.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is working with the USDA to see if it will be possible to ease those requirements, Stone said, and in the meantime Dracut is also working with the DESE to explore the possibility of being granted a waiver so that meals will be offered free of charge for all students.

The district has not implemented remote instruction, but educators are sharing enrichment materials with families online to encourage retention of the skills students have already built, according to Stone. He noted that the district sent out a technology survey last weekend to assess students’ needs, and said the schools have loaned out 119 Chromebooks to families so far. Educators and other staff are also reaching out directly to students and parents to provide support, according to Stone.

Operationally, most district business has continued remotely, and custodial and maintenance staff are taking extra precautions and practicing social distancing, he said. There has been talk of potentially postponing Town Meeting, which is scheduled for June 1, due to the virus, and Stone said that could affect an upcoming project to replace roofs at Brookside and Englesby schools.

“While we’ll be prepared to go out to bid, without having a Town Meeting vote, we wouldn’t have time to award the bid and have the construction mobilize to get it done this summer,” he said. “So we’ll continue to update the committee as that comes up.”

Committee member Joseph Wilkie praised the district’s response to the health crisis so far, and asked that special emphasis be placed on providing social emotional learning resources for parents during this time, as the shutdown will likely have an effect on students’ mental state.

“They’re living through times, before this event, that are so unique with social media and the challenges that kids face today that none of us on this call have ever faced before. This is something that completely ups that game or that element of their life,” Wilkie said.

A few committee members brought up concerns about how special education students are being served during the closure. Stone said that districts have received little federal guidance about how to approach special education programs during this period and that administrators are awaiting an update. He suggested that families stay in contact with their special education teachers and reach out to principals or the director of student services with any questions or concerns.

A couple of members also raised questions about how much time students should be spending on enrichment work each day, and whether that should vary depending on grade level. The work will not be graded, officials said at the meeting.

“I’m seeing a lot of stress out there particularly from the parents concerned that they aren’t doing enough or that they don’t know how to approach (it),” committee member Susan Koufogazos said.

Stone responded that principals are the main point of contact for each school, and said he will make sure the principals are communicating those guidelines to their respective school communities.

On the pay issue, Stone told the committee that though the district can continue paying its employees, the same is not true for contracted workers such as bus drivers because Mass. General Laws Chapter 30B prohibits municipalities from paying for contract services not rendered. He noted that the state is reviewing the issue and there may be further updates as the situation evolves.

Future virtual meeting dates have not yet been announced, but Chairwoman Allison Volpe said the district is working on ways to incorporate public comments into upcoming virtual sessions. Additional information about the district’s coronavirus reponse, including an FAQ, is available at www.dracutps.org/district/urgent-alerts/coronavirus-information-page.