PROVINCETOWN — Provincetown Schools Supt. Suzanne Scallion has received a letter from state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey Riley questioning her decision not to reopen the school for in-person education, despite the area’s very low Covid-19 infection rate.
Meanwhile, the parents of infants and toddlers are scrambling because of the indefinite closure of the town’s Wee Care program.
Riley’s letter, sent to 16 school districts in low-risk towns statewide, cited two reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics (Mass. chapter) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; both pointed to the importance of in-person school.
“Death rates among school-aged children are much lower than among adults,” according to the CDC guidance that was sent to schools in July. “At the same time, the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant.
“Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities,” it continued. “These students are far less likely to have access to private instruction and care and far more likely to rely on key school-supported resources like food programs, special education services, counseling, and after-school programs to meet basic developmental needs.”
The same letter went to Amesbury, Bourne, Boxford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Pittsfield, West Springfield, Gill-Montague, Mohawk Trail-Hawlemont, Mohawk Trail, Belmont and Watertown, Berkshire Arts and Technology Charter, Hoosac Valley Regional Schools, and Manchester Essex Regional Schools.
For weeks, the state commissioner has been clear that districts in towns where the rates of new infections are under four per 100,000 should offer in-person learning if possible. Some schools in low-risk areas have continued to delay in-person instruction anyway. Riley wanted to know why. In his letter, he said each school had to submit plans for in-person learning within 10 days of the Sept. 18 letter.
“Please note that your response may trigger an audit…,” he added.
Return Is Limited
Provincetown and all of Cape Cod remain in the lowest infection categories. Yet Scallion and the school committee have insisted on a slow reopening. While the school began remote lessons on Sept. 16, there were no solid plans to reopen in person until the Sept. 23 school committee meeting.
Scallion said that when she was filling out the state paperwork she left blank the date to return in person because the school committee had not yet voted.
On Sept. 23, the committee did vote to have students return to classrooms on Oct. 5. The younger students, in preschool through fifth grade, will be back in class four days a week. Their days, however, will end early, at 1:15 p.m., to accommodate buses that can transport only 22 students at a time, Scallion said.
Middle-school students, in grades six through eight, will return just two days a week for half days, from 12 noon to 2:55 p.m. This is much less in-person school time than is offered in the Truro Central School and the Nauset Regional School District.
Scallion said the decision to offer just half days for older children was prompted by a study she read “that indicates children 10 and over are significantly more vulnerable to the impact of the virus,” she said by email.
Provincetown has plenty of space in each classroom to provide at least six feet of distance, as well as free masks donated by local seamstresses, Scallion told the Independent in August.
All Provincetown students will get remote lessons on Wednesdays. And students were informed by Principal Tim Reynolds to bring coats, because the teachers will keep windows open whenever possible.
Wee Care Won’t Reopen
The news is worse for parents who are town employees or residents and who counted on the free Wee Care program for infants and toddlers.
The infant program won’t reopen because two staff members resigned “due to the risk of exposure,” Scallion wrote. “We do not anticipate opening the toddler program during the pandemic due to the inability to have the young children wear masks and keep them safely distanced. We hope to reopen the infant program when we have infant teachers. We continue to work with the town on some alternatives.”
Edgar Miranda, the director of the Early Learning Center that oversees the Wee Care and preschool programs, has resigned.
“We are grateful for his time with us and respect his decision to put health and family first,” Scallion wrote by email.
Jennifer Spoor and her husband, Provincetown Police Sgt. Kevan Spoor, counted on the infant and toddler program for their two children. She said she learned about the closing of the program and the staff resignations only when she inquired directly. There was no notice to families, leaving her little time to find alternatives.
“I’ve hated feeling so pushy with our questions and concerns (since I’ve been on the other side), but I’ve gotten more information from your paper and articles than from the school,” Jennifer Spoor told the Independent on Monday.