WATERTOWN — The Board of Education held an emergency meeting on Monday, March 23. During the meeting, the board received the superintendent’s report, held an executive session and voted on several action items.

The meeting was live streamed on the board’s YouTube channel which was available to the public. Remote access was available for board members who wanted to participate. Superintendent Dr. Rydell Harrison gave his report, including updates from the last few weeks.

He said since the board last met, there have been two virtual administration council meetings on Friday, March 13 and Thursday, March 19. Dr. Harrison said he has been on approximately six statewide calls with Gov. Lamont, state Commissioner of Education Miguel A. Cardona and many emergency personnel members in surrounding towns.

The meetings reviewed different components of executive orders issued by Gov. Lamont and the impact of the coronavirus, Covid-19, on school districts.

On March 20, he took part in a call with the U.S. Department of Education for guidance on distance learning and resources to support students with disabilities.

In reviewing the call and Watertown’s plan for distance learning, he said Gov. Lamont introduced an executive order which waives the 180-days requirement for all school districts and eliminates the requirement for districts to submit distance learning plans for approval.

According to Dr. Harrison, this change allows town administrators to revisit their DLP. Based on recommendations from the state Department of Education, they decided to shift from distance learning to supplemental learning.

“The concerns were equity among our teachers, but most importantly, the best ways to engage and work with our students with disabilities and our students with individualized education programs,” he said.

Regarding special education students, Dr. Harrison said Special Education Director Chris Brown has been working with special education teachers and related services staff to review the recommendations from the USDE, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services and the CSDE, as it pertains to the needs of the students.

He said the district is following the guidelines and recommendations to be in compliance with students with IEPs.

Administrators were aware of when Gov. Lamont extended school closures. Due to the 180-day waiver and implementation of distance learning, the plan is to end the school year on its planned end date of Wednesday, June 17, according to Dr. Harrison.

He told the board about Gov. Lamont’s executive order, which urges residents to stay home to minimize the exposure of the virus while keeping essential services running. Mr. Cardona said this order will not stop functions for food service or meal programs at schools.

Dr. Harrison said as of March 23, the district has served more than 1,900 meals to students. He said the established Grab and Go lunch program will continue while schools are closed.

“This is a great opportunity to thank Ms. Onion and her entire team and all the volunteers who have come out to help with those lunches,” he said. “It has been a great service to our community.”

The stay home order from Gov. Lamont will not prevent school functions from taking place to support continuation of educational opportunities or operational needs including payroll and building maintenance. 

He shared highlights of the district’s DLP. The plan was formally shared with teachers on March 23 and will be implemented into virtual professional learning within the week. The launch of distance learning is planned for March 30.

During distance learning, teachers will have an hour of collaboration time, from 10 to 11 a.m. each morning to work with special education teachers, administrators and other colleagues to discuss how to best support all learning needs.

In addition to planning and receiving student work, teachers will be available to students and parents every day from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., to offer support and answer questions through a digital platform.

He said teachers will use Google Classroom to deliver lessons and receive assignments and feedback from students. Teachers will use digital tools to check in on the emotional and social needs of the students.

Learning will be asynchronous, which means that teachers will post instructional and learning materials online and students are expected to engage in the material and complete assignments at their own pace within a set time frame.

He said the district decided not to do a model where teachers and students would be interacting together in real time because resources that are available for families may differ, as students may be sharing devices with parents working from home, making time constraints for students to log in. 

Dr. Harrison told the board that the district wants to ensure that students have the resources they need. As a result, they have given more than 420 Chromebooks to all students and will continue to distribute them as necessary.

He thanked Director of Technology Jeff Turner, his team and volunteers for their help with the technology and its distribution. He said the district purchased 10 mobile hot spots for students who may not have access to Wi-Fi at home. 

There has been a lot of parent communication. He will send distance learning guidelines and recommendations to families this week to allow families to prepare.

He discussed communication from the district. According to Dr. Harrison, on March 19 he sent an information update regarding the virus which included a dedicated email address for parents to send questions including topics like closures and the virus. He has answered more than 150 emails which ranged from concerns of technology to social distancing.

He said relevant questions and answers have been posted on the Q&A pages on the district website as well as links to all relevant information.

The board discussed the planned April break. Dr. Harrison said there is no change to the break, however because schools are not physically in session, the break could be irrelevant. The decision will be assessed by each district.

The board held an executive session for discussion of memorandums of understanding related to collective bargaining strategies.

The board approved the following Covid-19 emergency closure-related memorandums of understanding between the Board of Education, to ensure that employees receive annualized paychecks until June 17 including the Watertown Cafeteria Union, the Watertown Secretarial Union and the Watertown Federation of Paraprofessionals.

They approved a Covid-19 related memorandum of agreement between the Board of Education and the Watertown Education Association regarding the continuity of educational opportunities.

Finally, they approved a decision to grant Dr. Harrison the authority to execute a Covid-19 related memorandum of understanding between the Board of Education and the Custodial Union to ensure that employees receive annualized paychecks until June 17, if it becomes necessary.

Those wishing to view the meeting may search Watertown CT Public Schools on YouTube.

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