Emotional health interventions and budget compromises

Fri, 04/23/2021 - 10:00am

The Block Island School Committee met on April 12, and the meeting began in a typically mundane fashion: call to order, approval of the minutes from the March 15 meeting
and a statement of accounts. As it is nearing the end of the academic year, the school is able to accurately project what amount of fund balance will be needed for use as budgeted revenue. The current projection is to use $55,097, as opposed to the original budgeted amount of $96,343.
Superintendent Mike Convery gave his report, indicating that as Block Island does not meet the poverty rate (two percent) to receive funds from the ESSER funding and
consequently the American Recovery Act, his office has been in contact with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse about some sort of reimbursement or alternative funding for the
school’s Covid-19 expenses. Senator Whitehouse’s office will contact the governor on
the school’s behalf to request additional funding for Covid relief. Block Island is the only school district in the state that does not qualify for these ESSER and Recovery funds.

Superintendent Convery briefly discussed the ongoing plans for renovations to the HVAC system and gym, which are somewhat curtailed by the scheduling of
the approval process. The R.I. Department of Education will not make approvals until December, which will then put the town approval off until the following budget meetings in April and May, 2022. The RIDE approval is the first step, so the school is in a
holding pattern for now. He would like to separate the renovations into separate items, however, so that the work can begin, upon approval, on the exterior portions that can be done during the school year. The HVAC will have to be done during the summer, but the rest could go on during the school year.
Convery then moved the group into a robust discussion of student and faculty mental, emotional, and psychological wellbeing as it pertains to the ongoing pandemic. Superintendent Convery and much of the faculty and staff have been concerned about the emotional state of the children in the school, particularly the high schoolers. Dr. Dana Osowiecki, a clinical neuropsychologist, met with the faculty to discuss the social and emotional effects the Covid-19 pandemic is having on the school children.
As a result of this initial meeting, science teacher Dr. Susan Gibbons assigned a project for her students, in which she provided eight words for the kids to write about. The words were sad, angry, cheerful, demoralized, patient, energized, exhausted, hopeful. The responses from the students were “overwhelming,” according to Superintendent Convery.
The raw emotions and feelings expressed by the students led to another faculty meeting with Dr. Osowiecki, and a meeting with her and the student body. Dr. Osowiecki
discussed strategies for de-stressing, coping mechanisms for emotional distress, and warning signs of potential mental and emotional issues. Convery expressed the immediate need for this type of intervention for the sake of everyone’s health, both students and staff.
Principal Kristine Monje described these sessions as educational intervention, as she has seen covid fatigue and increased stress among the students. The data from Dr. Gibbons’ students revealed the need for an emotional intervention, according to Monje. The pandemic situation is causing extra stress on the kids and the school is looking for ways to alleviate these extra stresses as they enter the fourth quarter of the school year. The goal is to develop some new strategies and processes to better address the social and emotional learning component of the children’s development.
One strategy moving forward is to incorporate a few more distance learning days for the high school students.
School Committee Chair Jessica Willi asked if it is better for the kids to be in school. Convery stated that he wants to show the data produced by the students and collected by Dr. Gibbons. He said he has long been a proponent of having every kid in school every day, but that the emotions expressed by the students have made him question if having them in the building five days a week is the best thing for where the kids’ heads are.
Two committee members expressed concerns about having more distance learning, and not being in school, with the comment that parents grumble and complain about the
distance learning.
Monje mentioned that the plan is to use additional distance learning days for the high schoolers only, as they are more adept at working online than the elementary children. Convery stated that many other districts are doing distance learning at least one day every week, and that based on the student responses and teacher feedback, the
school needs to do something to address the issue. Special Education director Sally Mitchell agreed, saying that the kids are stressed and the staff is stressed, and pointing out that Block Island School is unique in that they have had in person learning all along while most schools in the state have been either hybrid or fully online.
As this was not an agenda item, and was just informational in that it required no formal vote from the Committee for implementation, Chair Willi deftly steered the conversation back to the formal agenda.
The school calendar was approved for next year, with school starting on September 8, 2021 and finishing up on June 21, 2022. This is a later start date than the state’s recommendation of September 1, but as Convery put it, “That just doesn’t work for us.” Labor Day is still summer on Block Island, after all.
There will be several staff changes for next school year, with Kathleen Hemingway and James Perry not returning. Hemingway was on a one-year contract to fill in for a
teacher, and the Committee expressed its best wishes and hope that she would return one day. Mr. Perry has resigned.
There was discussion on the situation with Donna Smith, a thirteen-year veteran of the school working as the Speech/Language Specialist. She is one of the casualties of the reduced budget from the town. She will be reduced from full time to 4/5 time, which will save $22,000 in salary and benefits. There is an expectation that health insurance premiums will go down and that the teachers and staff hired to replace the open positions will come in at a lower cost and so the school will be able to meet the
budget. As it stands, they are still over by $5,700, but with the financial town meeting next month there is hope that these numbers could change. Several Committee members were dissatisfied with the 4/5 compromise, and hoped that there would be a way forward that included retaining Smith full-time.
Much depends on the decisions made at the Financial Town Meeting on May 3, 2021, where all citizens will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on this and other budgetary concerns. The School Committee adjourned their meeting to await the decisions of the voters next month.