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As the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) prepares final guidance for districts to use in reopening schools in September 2020, many school committee members have raised questions and sought advice from MASC.
This is a time of uncertainty and extraordinary challenges for everyone associated with public schools. The COVID-19 situation imposes almost daily changes in how we plan for September. School committee members have a unique role to play not only as policy makers with fiduciary responsibilities for the education of children, but also as community leaders to whom parents, neighbors, and students turn for answers. You may join with your superintendents to provide a thoughtful and responsible information and advice to your constituents or to those who contact you.
Since the state has explained that considerable discretion will be given to districts regarding the opening of school, you should work with your superintendent to develop the plan that works most effectively and safely for your children and families.
MASC has developed this advisory to help you navigate the potentially rough and uncharted routes to a successful school opening and a solid 2020-2021 school year. We will be updating this document as members raise new questions or as events develop.
While the governor has suspended some laws for a limited time, most of the key responsibilities of the school committee for policy, budget, collective bargaining, and hiring/evaluation of the superintendent have remained in place. Your role as the voice of your community for public schools remains as a powerful way to communicate. In many communities, the school committee meeting is the only place people can hear about important developments or listen to both sides of a debate.
However, given the unprecedented number of factors that apply to reopening schools, you may want to be very economical with how you expend your authority while the safety, security and success of students are in the balance and school administrators need to focus on logistics of getting schools open successfully. The superintendent retains authority over the operations of the school district, including supervising the staff and has discrete authority to implement the budget, policy and union contracts based on your district policies.
Questions you may wish to ask yourselves include:
DESE has asked each school district to prepare contingency plans for a) a full return to the school buildings; b) a remote-only learning plan; and c) a hybrid that falls somewhere in the middle. Your superintendent will need to forward these contingency plans, and ultimately, you will need to approve a final plan to get students back to school in September. This plan will most likely include budgeting, building safety and security, strategies for instruction including the supervision and assignments of teachers, use of technology, and the appropriate mix of in-school and remote or distance learning.
When the crisis is over, board members should be happy to find things ready to return to normal with your policy prerogatives and your budget in place.
Many of the safety issues for going back to school come from credible sources. You may not have the authority to modify them if the state Department of Public Health or your local Board of Health issues directives. These may include rules for building cleanliness, wearing of masks, required equipment to have in school, documentation of vaccinations, social distancing, staying home when sick, or avoiding danger for persons with health risks.
Key questions to ask are:
Your superintendent should advise you on any personnel policies that involve union contracts or district policy. Your district labor attorney can also advise on the best strategies for working with your unions on these issues.
A key question may include:
The field of public education is already over-regulated as it is. MASC and our stakeholders have complained for years about the regulatory mandates and paperwork requirements that divert everyone from the basic task of educating children. This is not the time to make it worse by imposing excessive burdens on your school administrators who are facing the biggest and most complicated crisis in decades. When you review your policies, it would be wise to avoid going over each area in great detail, but you should check to see if temporary changes might be needed to avoid liability, grievances, or, to the extent possible miscommunication with the public.
Several areas of policy may require time-limits (temporary suspension of policies; or temporary policies for the duration of the pandemic); drafting of new policies; periodic review, revision or temporary suspension of current policies. In your own policy review, you should consider:
MASC will be preparing special guidance on interim policies for districts who need them. Once DESE issues new guidance on the opening of school, MASC will provide updates to this document.
School committee members may wish to ask the superintendent to respond to the following questions:
The COVID crisis has taken our best plans for the last half of FY 2020 and put them in the blender. The goals that you set for your superintendent are likely to have run through the end of the school year, but many of them became outdated over the three months of remote learning. It would be a very good idea to ask yourselves, in collaboration with the superintendent: