NEWTOWN — The Board of Education held a meeting Thursday, March 19.

Although the public was not invited to participate in person due to social distancing, the meeting was live-streamed and several board members attended via video conferencing.

The taped version of the meeting is available on the town website.

During the meeting, the board approved a waiver for distance learning.

Superintendent Dr. Lorrie Rodrigue thanked all staff members for thinking ahead to create a plan that would provide students with resources.

She is confident that they will be prepared for the coming weeks and she plans ongoing communications with parents during that time.

Dr. Rodrigue said the district has been thinking about this type of response for some time, given situations like the microburst of two years ago, to avoid taking away from the school year.

She also emphasized that the district did not enact this plan to get out of school earlier; the school year is expected to end where it would have been expected to end.

Newtown Schools has shared its plan with other districts, at their request.

“This is not an easy task by any means,” Dr. Rodrigue said, pointing out that those other districts are discovering the work involved with the transition and she asked for patience, describing the effort as building the plane while flying it. “We do feel more than prepared.”

Assistant Superintendent Anne Uberti described a delicate balance of offering consistency, but allowing flexibility to react to changes in the situation as the district transitions from a supplemental learning program to actual distance learning.

Distance learning will be introduced to lower grades systematically.

The district continues to meet with parents and students on an appointment basis and Dr. Rodrigue has appreciated the respect shown by parents.

Board member Rebekah Harriman-Stites asked how the district is evaluating mastery as distance learning evolves; Ms. Uberti responded that the district is considering how to address this. “We’re going to have to take it on an individual basis.”

She asked parents to stay in contact and work with the classroom teachers.

“These are not the ideal learning circumstances for our students,” Chair Michelle Embree Ku said, noting things are moving so fast that what was forward-thinking last week has changed before she expressed pride in the district.

Regarding testing, such as the SATs, Dr. Rodrigue said information is changing and, as of the meeting, the schedule was moved by a week and AP testing could be rescheduled on request.

She expects more changes and knows people are asking questions about prom and graduation.

As the board discussed how the district would address these and other changes to the school schedule, Dr. Rodrigue advocated for keeping the April break if schools reopen, to combat the stress that is surrounding the situation.

The school district has used three snow days and two days without distance learning to total five days off from school and school should end on June 16.

Dr. Ku asked the board to discuss the break and how the district counts days in order to provide the superintendent with feedback, although she noted that factors could change and a decision at this point would be premature.

The board members agreed they would prefer to leave the schedule as it is, with the April break as it stands.

The Board of Education also briefly addressed the fiscal implications of social distancing.

Director of Business Ron Bienkowski described uncharted territory as he listed accounts that might be impacted, including those negatively impacted such as medical costs associated with waived co-pays for testing and services billed to other districts like the pre-kindergarten program, which was canceled.

There would be a refund for the latter.

Offsetting that would be savings from items including custodial maintenance overtime for after school activities, substitutes, tutors, spring activities, lower FICA and Medicare expenses because staff is being paid less, training, water, classroom repairs, bus fuel and possible adjustments to the bus contract.

Mr. Bienkowski estimated $600,000 to $1 million in savings; the range is due to unknown factors such as transportation contracts and when students would return to school.

Dr. Rodrigue commented that there are too many factors that have not been considered, such as legal implications that result from social distancing, and supported the 2020-21 budget as approved by the Board of Education rather than making adjustments to it now.

Food is an issue, not only for students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.

As the days at home count as school days, Whitsons Culinary Group is offering boxed lunch pick-ups at three sites from 8 a.m. to noon Mondays and Wednesday.

Editor’s Note: A copy of Newtown Schools’ Alternative Learning Plan is available on the Voices website at www.voicesnews.com. In the search box at the top right of the home page, type “Alternative Learning Plan” to see the plan.

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