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Schools lay off staff, cope with educational and financial uncertainty

Tuesday’s School Committee meeting made clear how uncertain the future is for the schools, both academically and financially, as the coronavirus pandemic affects every aspect of civic life. Financial uncertainty, of course, is a plight that the schools share with the rest of the town, given that Harvard faces at least a $500,000 shortfall in fiscal 2021, and perhaps as much as double that amount.

District lays off hourly staff

In response to that looming shortfall, Superintendent Linda Dwight told the School Committee she had already informed 55 hourly employees that they would be laid off as of June 16. She expressed the hope, in a letter to students’ families dated May 27, that the hourly staff would be rehired “as school resumes in a traditional form at some point in the upcoming school year.”

The district will also have three fewer teachers next year. Two retiring teachers and one who is leaving will not be replaced, Dwight wrote in the letter to families. Current teachers will take over the drama and cable studio classes at Bromfield, another current teacher will transfer to seventh-grade English, and one elementary grade will have three sections instead of four.

School Committee member Shannon Molloy asked Dwight which grade would be affected, but Dwight said it was too soon to tell. Dwight said three grades now look as if they might have 60 or fewer students next fall: kindergarten, first grade, and second grade. But families with students at those ages might move into—or out of—town over the summer. So the decision as to which grade to divide into three classes will wait until closer to next school year.

As to whether any further reductions will be needed, that decision, too, must wait until later in the summer when the state releases its budget and the town as a whole sees the financial impact on local revenue.

Searching for a new approach to remote learning

As the School Committee reviewed its proposed fiscal 2021 budget this week, Chair John Ruark remarked, “This budget assumes students will be physically in school in the fall.” But that is far from certain.

Dwight told the committee she foresees three possibilities for the fall: a continuation of remote learning; some sort of hybrid arrangement of remote and in-school classes; and a return to traditional schooling with increased safety measures. She said the return to traditional schooling looks less likely as time goes by.

In response to that educational uncertainty, Dwight said a task force of more than 20 teachers, administrators, and school specialists is working on plans for those possible scenarios. Among the task force’s first projects is a survey to gather input from parents, Dwight wrote in her superintendent’s report.

Of the current system in which classes move ahead at less than half the regular pace of schoolwork, Dwight said, “I wouldn’t say that’s a sustainable model.” Her goal, Dwight said, is “to make sure learning is robust.”

“To that end,” she wrote in her report, “I have vetted an idea with superintendents and now with state leadership to contract with an existing education system that has a remote learning platform with a robust [Massachusetts] curriculum.” That platform would be a resource to which all districts would have access and that local teachers could supplement and enrich.

Dwight said she is hoping for some supportive response from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education soon, including both state endorsement and funding. If that’s not forthcoming, she said, a group of superintendents will try to collaborate across districts.

Summer camp canceled, too

The need to focus on planning for fall, Dwight said, was one factor in her recommendation to the School Committee to cancel the district’s traditional five-week summer camp, run by the community education program. But the main factors included a lack of protective equipment and safety planning guidelines.

Although no formal vote was needed because the decision was Dwight’s to make, School Committee members all agreed the cancellation was a sad but necessary step. While the camp program had been expected to generate about $80,000 for next year, “This decision is based on safety, not money,” Dwight said.

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