The Sanford School Committee met on August 30. Normally, the School Committee wouldn’t meet twice in August, but this additional meeting was requested so that there could be further discussion on the Safe Return to School plan that was presented at the previous meeting on August 11. Committee member Jonathan Mapes was not present.
There were some audio issues at the start of the meeting, so the recording of the first part of the meeting was not available for us to summarize.
Shawnda Williams, former School Nurse at Sanford Middle School and parent of an eighth grader, advocated for the continued requirement of mask wearing in schools. She addressed parents who were advocating parental choice on the matter. “The rights of those who want to go unmasked end when they impact others,” she said, comparing it to second hand smoke. She thanked the administration and Committee members for their hard work and asked them to keep the goal of a safe learning environment, adding “Please don’t buckle to the court of public opinion.”
Committee chair Don Jamison summarized the messages in emails sent to the School Department. He was interrupted by an audience member whose voice was not audible on the video. He asked her to abide by the meeting rules and noted that she refused to put on a mask when she was asked to do so. Mr. Jamison continued going through the emails. In all, seven emails were in favor of masking, four were against, and one was from someone who had spoken earlier (before the audio was being recorded).
Michael Termath spoke to advocate for his children who have disabilities to go without masks, including a 12 year old son who has a number of allergies and may not be able to be vaccinated. He said the mask mandate was causing them stress. “Each kid is different, not all can handle it…I implore you and ask respectfully, please weigh the consequences.” He also complained that the previous meeting was only posted a day ahead of time.
Committee members generally don’t respond directly to public comments, but John Roux replied that the agenda for the previous meeting was posted the Wednesday before the meeting.
Tonya Pickering, mother of two Sanford students, said her kids were very excited to go back to school. She questioned whether the mask mandate would be reviewed periodically, and if so, if there were specific numbers or goals that would result in it being lifted.
Mr. Jamison replied that the Committee would get an update on the Safe Return to School Plan at each meeting. He said “We empathize with every parent…but we have to go with what we think is best for the majority.”
Construction & Committee Updates
Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson gave the construction update, which focused on the work that went into getting Pride Elementary ready to open. He gave thanks to all Department employees for their hard work, as well as the contractors, subcontractors, Fire Marshal and Code Enforcement office. He said the playground equipment is scheduled to be delivered the week of September 13 and will be installed as soon as possible.
Mr. Nelson spoke about the Sanford High School/Sanford Regional Technical Center Scheduling Advisory Committee meeting on August 20. He said it was mostly an organizational meeting with a lot of background information presented. The Committee will meet every three weeks. Mr. Jamison said the Committee is trying to look at the issue without preconceptions and figure out which schedule will best achieve the goals of all stakeholders.
Vice Chair Paula Cote gave an update on the Sanford Performing Arts Center. She said she couldn’t divulge all the details yet, but that SPAC has a great season planned which includes two performances of The Nutcracker by the Portland Ballet, a multi-day piano festival in January, and an artisans and crafters festival on Homecoming weekend. She encouraged people to volunteer, as there are openings for ushers, security, marketing and box office help.
There was no update on Adult Education, but Mr. Nelson said the search for a replacement for former Director Nichole Ivey is underway.
Mr. Nelson introduced the new Sanford High School Resource Officer, Paul Goldsmith, who has been with the Sanford Police Department for seven years. Officer Goldsmith spoke briefly about the training he underwent before starting to work with the School Department, and said he regarded the job as a continuation of his community service.
Mr. Nelson talked about the new teacher orientation day held the previous week. He said there are a total of 72 new teachers in the district, including 41 filling vacant existing positions, and 31 in new positions being paid for with federal Covid relief funds. He said he was very impressed with, and proud of, the quality of candidates they were able to hire. All new teachers have a mentor among experienced staff to help them acclimate to the Sanford school system.
A brief overview of the Committee’s goal setting workshop held August 18 was given. Mr. Nelson said goals were identified in three areas. In the area of student achievement, the goals are to meet students where they are, and create learning paths for them to be successful. In the area of climate and culture, the goal is to support the social and emotional well-being of students and staff. And, in the area of capacity, to create structures to provide staff with ongoing support and opportunities for professional growth. He called it a very productive day.
Committee member Amy Sevigny agreed, and said she wished every family could hear what each school is doing. She hopes that each school principal can come to an upcoming meeting to talk about the work that is being accomplished.
Safe Return to School Plan / Covid
Mr. Nelson went over the latest Covid-19 and vaccination statistics for Sanford and for York County. He said that in deciding when to end the mask mandate, the leading metric will be community prevalence of the virus. In Sanford and Springvale, 84% and 83% of the eligible population has been vaccinated, respectively. However, of children ages 12 through 18, only 45 to 49% have had at least one dose of the vaccine. He said to help address that, SHS and SMS will hold vaccine clinics for students in late September and in October.
A survey was done of the Department’s 557 staff members. Of the 438 who responded, nearly 90% have been vaccinated, but the status of the 119 who didn’t respond is unknown.
Mr. Nelson said he spoke with the School Department’s physician, who works at York Hospital. She said that the current positivity rate of over 5% is more than double what it was last year at this time, and she recommends mandating universal masking. She added that vaccines for children under age 12 may be available as early as December. She also warned parents to be wary of misinformation regarding the virus and vaccines.
Mr. Nelson said he gets reports every weekday, and will use them to see where the pandemic is trending. Ms. Sevigny said the goal will be for masks to come off when the Committee feels it is safe. Ms. Cote added that another goal is reducing quarantining as much as possible to keep kids in school, so information and metrics on quarantining need to be clear, so everyone knows what to expect.
The School Committee’s student representatives offered their comments. Isabella Farrington said students are all trying to do whatever they have to do to stay in school. Grace Davie agreed, “If that’s what I have to do to have the most normal senior year experience, I am willing to wear (a mask).”
Mr. Nelson said he has already been made aware of some positive cases of Covid at SRTC and Carl J. Lamb School, and those are being investigated, and close contacts are being notified. He said he is proud that last year there was no transmission of the virus in Sanford schools, and said that is the goal again this year.
Assistant Superintendent Steve Bussiere also talked about pool testing for Covid-19. The Department has applied through the Maine Department of Education and expects it to start soon. There will be an informational night for parents with Zoom access. The pool testing will be completely voluntary and sign up will be required.
Athletic Director Gordie Salls gave a brief summary of the summer sports activities. He said in addition to the many individual sports programs offered during the summer, the free program with the Sports Medicine Performance Center at Southern Maine Health Care had the participation of a total of 365 students working on flexibility, agility, strength and conditioning.
Mr. Salls said the fall season got off to a good start on August 16 with about 235 athletes participating in football, field hockey, volleyball, cross country, soccer and golf. Middle school sports start this week with soccer, cross country and field hockey. He talked about Homecoming Week, scheduled for September 27 through October 1, and the fall awards banquet on November 3.
With regard to challenges, Mr. Salls described the Covid protocols that are being taken to keep everyone safe, and said that after a player tests positive, there is a gradual return to play protocol that is followed as with any other injury. He said busing is a major challenge, as well as having enough help to run games.
Mr. Bussiere talked about the transportation issues and encouraged anyone who is interested to look into becoming a bus driver or bus monitor. He said there are part time and per diem openings available for people who want to just drive a school bus for games or special events. He asked parents for their patience as the Department gets all the routes and timing worked out, and cautioned there may be some disruptions in service due to the shortage of drivers.
Curriculum Director Beth Lambert gave a brief update on the professional development opportunities offered to teachers over the summer. Over 200 staff members took advantage of 235 hours of training in the month of August.
Mr. Nelson announced the staff resignations, appointments, transfers and nominations. He noted that a teacher has been hired for the plumbing program at SRTC.
A second reading was held on a new policy on remote participation in School Committee meetings. The Council voted 4-0 to adopt the policy.
Under future agenda items, Mr. Jamison said a workshop should be scheduled on metrics with regard to the mask mandate, as well as pool testing.
The next two regular School Committee meeting will be held Monday, September 13 and Monday, September 20.
The meeting video (minus the beginning) may be viewed here: youtube.com/watch?v=UH0Mc4EvGk4.