EAST GREENWICH – While the ongoing pandemic is undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing East Greenwich Schools, newly-elected School Committee Chair Anne Musella looks forward to helping the district set a course of direction once life returns to some semblance of normalcy.
“Our first priority, of course, is to support our superintendent in getting through the pandemic,” Musella said in a phone interview last week. “Supporting our superintendent, our administrators and staff – as well as our families, in getting through this, and whatever that takes.”
“The staff has done a tremendous job of balancing multiple, at times, competing needs,” she added. “As we’ve seen from the last couple of school committee meetings, everyone is stretched really thin.”
Currently, the district is closing out an eight-day period of distance learning, largely brought on by an overwhelming lack of staff to cover all classrooms – especially at the middle school level. When the recommendation was put before the school committee by Superintendent Alexis Meyer and Assistant Superintendent Michael Podraza it was stressed that quarantine guidelines almost forced the district to close entire buildings on numerous occasions, because of staffing needs.
“It’s a tough spot, and yet she and our faculty, and staff have kept our kids safe,” Musella said.
As a parent with children at the elementary and high school levels, Musella believes the district has done a particularly good job of taking care of its in-person student population.
“Particularly our youngest kids, who need to be there the most,” Musella emphasized. “There’s a recent parent survey that went out, and I completed one for each of my children. One of the questions was, ‘Do you have any concerns about in-person learning?’”
She felt confident responding that she didn’t have any concerns, especially at the elementary level, because she knows the care and attention to detail that the district facilities teams, administrators and reopening steering committee paid to “ensuring those students are safe.”
When the worst days of the pandemic are behind us, Musella hopes the district will be able to find some takeaways from this current learning environment, and possibly re-imagine some of the ways education has been delivered in the past – when appropriate, of course.
“There’s no substitute, of course, for in-person learning,” she stressed. “Particularly for our youngest learners.”
Apart from COVID-19, which has demanded much of the committee’s time and attention, this year’s efforts will also be focused on the district’s new strategic plan. In a few weeks time, the committee’s steering committee will embark on the charge before them.
“It’s going to be very focused work on a relatively short timeline,” Musella said, “but with focus and with the input of multiple stakeholders, in a variety of ways, we’ll be able to really identify what our priorities are as a district, going forward.”
Once in place, the school committee will look at policies and practices to support that plan.
“The expectation is that this strategic plan will be a living, dynamic document,” Musella said. “Together with the recent ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ work, we will really provide a framework for everything we do – from providing instruction, grading, facilities needs, social emotional learning, how we include our special populations and other stakeholder groups.”
“There’s a lot of do there,” she added. “That will set the tone.”
The district is also entering a new budget season, with new leadership across the board, according to Musella, and there’ll be plenty of opportunities to continue refining that process.
Thankfully, the school committee and the town council have formed a good working relationship over the past two years after a time of contention with a previous town council. While some of the budgeting conversations could be categorized at a bit tense when the current council came on board in 2018, a lot has happened since then.
“On the heels of that, there’s been a lot of work on both sides, certainly, by on the town’s side, they were just beginning their work,” Musella said. “Subsequent to that first budget season, they hired the new town manager, their new finance director, and then, we hired our new superintendent.”
“Everyone is committed, on the town and the school side, to really fostering a good, collaborative relationship, because that really benefits everybody,” she added. “It’s clear to me, for every perspective that I have – whether it’s as a school committee member, a school committee chair or as a parent in the community – it’s clear how dedicated everyone is to a good, healthy collaboration.”
And despite COVID-19 stealing all the attention, there has been a lot of positive work happening on the school committee with regard to policy. While some of the work has just been a matter of housekeeping, there’s a significant number of policies that are several years old and are in need of updating according to Musella. New policy initiatives like classroom visitation, which had been in the pipeline for five years after parents of special needs students expressed a desire to better understand what’s happening in the classroom, have also been passed.