The Westfield School Committee voted on the return Jan. 14 during a special meeting. Cohort E includes special education students who had been attending school every day.
Students enrolled in high needs programs include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Essential Learning Skills, Developmental Learning Program, QUEST, RISE, Language Learning Disability (LLD), and the East Mountain Transition Program will resume daily in-person instruction on Jan. 19.
Beginning English Language learners (ELL) who were originally part of Cohort E will not return until the next phase. “In the end, we are unable to bring back our ELL’s this phase because of staffing issues. We expect the ELL’s will return in the next phase,” Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said after the meeting.
During the meeting, Czaporowski said originally when the district decided to go full remote, they had seen some increases in cases in the schools, which totaled 87 from the start of the year at that point.
“As of today, we’re now up to 151 cases in the schools, all while remote,” Czaporowski said.. He said last week there were 59 new cases, and this week 15. The city as a whole announced 247 cases this week, an uptick from the week before.
“I did talk with [Health Director Joseph] Rouse as well about bringing everybody back next Tuesday. [He said] it was probably not a very good idea,” Czaporowski said.
Rouse said this week was another all time high for new cases in Westfield. He said while setting records every week, the numbers haven’t gone down in a long time.
“Until numbers start to go down, it’s only a matter of time until it impacts the school. I’m not projecting right now it’s going to get better in the near future. The last thing anyone wants to do is go back and then have to close again,” Rouse said. He said although he feels like a “broken record,” the next two weeks is critical to get through the holiday rebounding.
Rouse said he recommended having the Phase 1B plan go into effect beginning Jan. 19, “the tech shop kids and high needs,” and hold off on the hybrid model until Feb. 1.
Rouse said that 85 percent of the people testing positive are working age adults between the ages of 25 to 65, adding that a lot of the exposure is happening in the workplace. He said this is the age group that has kids at home. Rouse also said the Health Dept. is educating employers to be more careful.
The School Committee did discuss bringing back kindergarten and preschool students next week, with the majority saying they were “on the fence” about this group of students.
However, Fort Meadow Principal Joanne Hentnick expressed concerns about bringing back the preschoolers. “Number one, back in the fall, we had a half hour of learning time outside. Right now, with the weather the way it is, half an hour is a long time to be outside, and bundling and unbundling takes a long time. Parents may choose to keep their kids home because they’re nervous,” Hentnick said, adding that would mean less kids in school in front of teachers who would not be able to teach the kids at home.
Hentnick said there are a lot of materials involved in teaching preschool, which means that teachers would “literally have to move back in,” and she was concerned about having them return to school and then having to go back home again. “As much as I love having all the kids there, I do have some concerns about bringing everybody back, staff and students, right now,” she said.
Czaporowski expressed some reservations about bringing all the kindergarten students back, saying it might be too much, and said busing would have to be worked out. Transportation Director Pam Kotarski said kindergarten only would be more difficult, but she would make it work.
However, School Committee members agreed with Committee member Cindy Sullivan, who said, “I’m fine with not having preschool and kindergarten come back if there’s not a huge consensus on it.”
The committee also agreed with Czaporowski’’s recommendation that staff have the option to come into work, rather than it be required.
After voting unanimously on the plan to bring back tech shop students and Cohort E on Jan. 19, which Committee member Heather Sullivan observed was the same body of students that they started the year with, the committee also agreed to set another special meeting to review the plans.
After the meeting, Czaporowski said a special meeting on Jan. 21 at 5 p.m. will review the status of athletics, and the next meeting to determine whether or not to bring more students back is scheduled for Jan. 28 at 5 p.m.
Updated Jan. 15 1:30 p.m.