WORCESTER - Three new Worcester School Committee members - Jermaine Johnson, Jermoh Kamara and Sue Mailman - will make their first appearance at the committee meeting on Thursday since being sworn in early January
The committee will meet to discuss agenda items including establishing more COVID-19 testing sites, changing the way committee members are professionally addressed and finalizing the General Fund Budget for the 2022 fiscal year for Worcester public schools.
"I'm really concerned about COVID, and us understanding it and being aware of where we are with numbers and how we're helping people with testing and COVID vaccination and really supporting our kids and teachers and families in the public schools," Kamara said.
She submitted three agenda items for Thursday's meeting, which not only included a request for a report from the administration that provides information about how teachers and employees who have tested positive for COVID-19 are recorded and monitored and the procedures in place for their return to school or workplace but also establishing COVID-19 testing sites in the four quadrants for teachers and students.
"I'm just kind of thinking about what are some ways that we can keep our numbers down, make it easier for people to continue to test and for them to know their COVID and vaccination status," Kamara said. "And create more opportunities across the different quadrants to limit the lines and the burden of people calling and waiting."
She also requested a discussion about the roles and responsibilities of the chairs and vice chairs of the Standing Committees.
Johnson and Mailman both said they look forward to tackling COVID-19 in schools.
"I think one of the most important things is clarifying and making sure we know the amount of students and educators that have been affected by COVID and what that is doing to the schools and the kids," said Johnson. "How we could work to improve that to make it better."
Mailman wants to see sufficient communication of data about positive cases among teachers and students from the school department.
"There are several items on COVID and I'm looking forward to understanding what has been the update," she said. "What has been the public update from the schools and are there ways to improve that communication?"
Mailman also submitted an agenda item about switching to a more gender-neutral way of addressing the School Committee members, aside from Mayor Joseph M. Petty.
"It seems to me most organizations I've been involved with have moved to a practice of using titles or just people's names," Mailman said. "My thought was that we would move to titles versus Mr. and Mrs. Smith."
Another point that the new members, as well as Molly McCullough, agreed upon was an interest in keeping students learning in-person rather than return to remote learning.
"I'm committed to safely keeping our students in school at this time," McCullough said. "We've had a lot of conversation with educators in our schools, who really feel that, if it's possible, that we do continue to stay in person, so that students are avoiding any further disruption as far as both their academic and their extracurricular activities go, but certainly want to make sure we're doing that as safely as we possibly can."
Kamara and Johnson both pointed to what students had to endure during remote learning, and that they believe kids should remain in the classroom as it is the best course of learning and development available to them.
"When I've talked to students, they've missed the social aspect of being in person, being able to speak with friends, being a part of recreational activities, and these things are building blocks, especially for a young person," Kamara said. "Those are building blocks for mental stability and other stability, developmental stability."
Johnson said this is why it is important to take a look at the numbers of how many students and teachers are out, as well as what kind of effect it is having not only on teachers but also other employees, such as bus drivers.
"The buses are late, not enough bus drivers, kids are not able to get to school on time or sometimes even at all," Johnson said. "There's sometimes a bus, it didn't even show up because there weren't enough bus drivers, so we need to take all that into account."
He said that it is important to take everything into consideration and view each school on a case-by-case basis.
"Until we get the hard numbers to see what it looks like and what schools might be affected in this area," Johnson said, "it's tough to say that but I can tell you that I stand by kids being at school at this time."
Mailman said that she is also committed to keeping students in the classroom so long as it can be done safely for teachers and students.
"It's also a balancing act to understand that our schools are up against, what teachers are up against," she said.
However, the issue of in-person versus remote learning is a part of a larger discussion for Tracy O'Connell Novick.
"I think that my answer is bigger than that, which is that this isn't really even about schools being open or closed," Novick said. "This is about whether or not we're effectively handling the pandemic - not just from a school district perspective, but from a sort of larger civilization perspective."
Novick pointed to recent decisions made at the state and federal levels.
"I feel as if the state and the federal branches of the government are...effectively doing two things at the same time: They're telling us that it absolutely is effectively mandatory for schools to be fully in person, and they're not actually then providing the tools and the policies that create the situation in which that can happen," Novick said.
Gov. Charlie Baker's announcement is an example of this, she said.
"Everyone has been saying, our staff is running flat out with contact tracing. To me that says, well, probably we need more support for staff, we need more within schools that's dependable," Novick said. "The answer from the Baker admin is then, well we're just going to test the kids once a week on a test that may not show up as positive when you actually are, and you can end contact tracing and testing entirely."
She said this type of action does not indicate properly controlling COVID-19 in schools but rather dismissing it as an issue.
“I'm concerned about the degree to which districts are being left on their own to cope with things that really are the responsibility of other branches of government that are more effectively handled there, honestly, or should be currently being," Novick said.
While Novick has submitted several agenda items to be addressed at the meeting, she said the two things she's most looking forward to are two items she did not submit.
"I think that the budget update that finally gets us to having a settled number for FY22 is really important," Novick said. "I also know that we have some information coming back from our student reps about a survey that they've been conducting and I think that those probably are the two things that I'm really most interested in for Thursday."
The budget for the 2022 fiscal year, according to the agenda, is set to be $388,472,088, which is an increase of $2,256,946 from the budget amount approved in June 2021.
Novick said that she is looking forward to settling the final budget for the year because it determines "everything that we do."
She also finds the surveys from the student reps to be exciting because they have been filling in the voice of the student body.
Novick also wants the public to be aware of the listening sessions for the superintendent search.
"I think it's really important for people to know that this is really their chance to weigh in on what they're looking for next," she said.
McCullough also weighed in on the importance of the listening sessions.
"Community input is going to be crucial, not only in developing the job description but also in supporting the search committee as they go through the initial screening and search process," she said. "And as we transition a new superintendent so that they know the goals and objectives of the community and the families and the city of Worcester and it really ensures an opportunity for all voices to be heard."
She said translators are provided for all of the listening sessions.
Those interested in the sessions can find more information on the Worcester public schools website.
McCullough said she is looking forward to COVID-19 policy and procedure updates, as well as school safety scenarios.
"I have an item this week that we work collaboratively with the city and UMass Medical to explore the opportunity for Worcester public schools to participate in the 'Practice Safe Skin' program," McCullough said.
She explained it is an opportunity for students to not only be provided with education surrounding skin cancer prevention but also present them opportunities to get free sunblock at certain locations throughout the city.
"Whether it be a sporting event, another outdoor extracurricular event, and moving forward even possibly have the opportunity to have it provided at schools," McCullough said.
The other school committees could not be reached for comment.
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Jermaine Johnson, Jermoh Kamara Sue Mailman Worcester School Committee