Tisbury students headed back after Thanksgiving

School committee approves expansion of in-person learning and funding for testing program.

Tisbury School will expand its in-person instruction at the end of the month. - Rich Saltzberg

Tisbury students in grades 5 and 6 will head back to more in-person instruction the Monday after Thanksgiving break under a plan outlined and approved Tuesday evening. The following week, beginning Dec. 7, students in grades 7 and 8 will be in the classroom for a full week.

When grades 5 and 6 are in-person, grade 7 and 8 students will be learning remotely — and vice versa, Principal John Custer explained. “Effectively it’s the ‘one week on, one week off’ model,” Custer said. “Grades 5 and 6 together. Grades 7 and 8 together. It would start on Monday, Nov. 30. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Students would go for a full day of school, from 8:15 am to 2:40 pm, pending the ability of the bus company to accommodate those hours, he said.

The expansion of the school reopening plan was approved by the Tisbury School Committee in a unanimous vote Tuesday evening. It had already gotten the blessing of the health and safety committee, Custer said. Tisbury is the last of the Island elementary and middle schools to approve an expansion of in-person learning, though Edgartown has had to postpone its re-entry plan because a student tested positive for COVID-19 Monday.

School board chair Amy Houghton asked the rationale behind the “one week on, one week off” model. 

Custer said it’s not possible to have all of the students in the school at the same time because of the distancing guidelines. He said the expansion plan offered provides consistency and allows for better management of the facility.

School board member Jennifer Cutrer asked Custer if it was a wise idea to return on Nov. 30. “I’m only questioning that because we’re coming off a holiday weekend, where people are going to get together … we can’t tell people who they can see and who they can’t see,” she said. “I’m just wondering if we could push this off a week.”

Custer said he understood the concern, but the idea of starting the in-person instruction at that time is to have each student cohort have full weeks in school before the Christmas break.

In answer to a question from committee member Michael Watts, Custer said he expects the number of students in cohort D, who are entirely remote, to increase because some parents will be uneasy sending students into the school buildings.

“As numbers on the Island increase, people might get a little skittish and go to cohort D,” Superintendent Matt D’Andrea said. However, surveys of parents have consistently shown the number of students doing remote-only learning to be about 10 percent of the student population.

Custer had high praise for his teachers and how they’ve handled the initial phase of reopening, including two recent reported cases of COVID-19.

“I’d like to say thank you to the staff for what they’ve done and continue to do over the last days, weeks, and months,” Custer said. “They’ve been focused and poised, and it’s been an uneasy, unsettling feeling, certainly. I’m very proud of this staff — not surprised, but very proud for how they model in front of kids despite the uneasiness that they may be feeling. When kids are in front of them in the classroom, they are all business, and it’s amazing to see, and I’m incredibly proud of our staff — not just for what they’re doing, but how they’re doing it. I just wanted to give them an extra shout-out because they are our greatest resource in all of this.” 

In a separate vote later in the same meeting, the school committee unanimously approved spending $19,899 of the school choice funds Tisbury has set aside for a testing program approved by the All-Island School Committee. School choice funds are typically used for out-of-district placements of special needs students, but Custer said it’s not needed at the moment. The testing program is aimed at keeping the schools open to in-person learning.

Custer floated the idea of adding portable classrooms to get more students back into in-person learning. He said he didn’t expect it to be a solution for this school year, but could possibly help next year.

With the Tisbury School Building Committee in the process of pitching a school renovation and addition project, the portable classrooms could be used to house students for that project as well. Watts, the school committee’s representative on the building committee, will float that idea.

Town administrator Jay Grande pointed out to the committee that the town has $1.5 million, which was set aside last year when students had to be moved out of the building because of lead contamination, that it could spend on portable classrooms.

In other business, school committee members got a peek at their 2021–22 budget. Finance manager Mark Friedman projects a 2.3 percent increase, mostly to cover contractual obligations for staff salaries. What’s uncertain is how much the schools may need for the pandemic. This year money for technology and PPE has been offset by federal grants, but those funds might not be available next year, he said.

D’Andrea also reported school enrollment numbers. Islandwide school enrollment is 2,151, down 20 students from the previous year. At Tisbury School, there are 272 students enrolled, down 16 students from the previous year, D’Andrea said. MVRHS has 30 more students this year than it had last year.