The Mount Pleasant Board of Education approved the release of $384,000 from unassigned fund balance to pay for the potential full-time return of students at Hawthorne and Columbus elementary schools.
After surveys of students’ parents at both schools were recently conducted and tabulated, the board unanimously passed the resolution at its Feb. 10 meeting that could allow in-person classes to resume next month provided the district can ensure the required number of certified teachers to staff the buildings.
The district’s initial focus will be to reopen the K-2 Hawthorne Elementary School followed by Columbus, which houses grades 3-5, said Board President Colleen Scaglione Neglia.
“At this time, we don’t have enough applicants for teachers to complete a full return to both Hawthorne and Columbus,” Neglia said. “At this time Hawthorne requires four teachers. We will proceed in trying to open up Hawthorne, and then the board will consider how we can proceed with Columbus with the administration and the teachers.”
Following the vote, she said the district had interviewed five applicants to fill those positions.
Neglia said the money is needed to hire teachers and teacher aides as well as buy personal protection equipment.
At the last meeting, board members listened to parents for about an hour-and-a-half, with many pleading for a full return to school. Those who advocated for a return to in-person learning reported lackluster remote lessons in some case and that their children were falling behind, regressing academically and socially over the past year.
“I have a second-grader and every morning that she’s not here she cries and I have to pry her off the floor, and there are tantrums and behavior that she has never had, ever, in her entire life,” said Thornwood resident Anna Manessi. “She has anxiety, she has depression and this is told by her doctor to me and this is what’s happening with our children.”
Hawthorne resident Mike Nugent said that to him the choice was clear, particularly after the results of the survey were released. Nearly 80 percent of Hawthorne Elementary School parents wanted their children to return to school; the tally at Columbus was nearly a 50-50 split.
“You said you have an impossible choice. Could it be any more possible?” Nugent said. “You sent out a survey to survey the parents, they answered it. You are elected by the parents of this community to represent them. I don’t know what the debate is. This is not your own personal decision.”
However, nearly an equal number of parents opposed the move because of health concerns as well as the likelihood that their children will face an upheaval in March for the second straight year. Students who return to school will not be able to keep the teachers they have had in the hybrid classes.
Opponents of a reopening called for district officials to concentrate their attention and resources on having a full reopening in September.
“To all of you, I understand your angst. I understand why you would want your children back at school,” said Karen Murphy Connelly of Thornwood, a first-grade teacher in another district. “But I feel you should also know that school doesn’t look the same anymore. There is no carpet time. We have face shields in front of the children, we have face masks on. We have to remain in the front of the classroom. That’s not the way you teach first grade and any elementary teachers can speak to that.”
Leslie O’Malley, who has two children at Columbus Elementary School, said changing teachers at this point in the year would be counterproductive.
“It would be like starting over again for school, and I also, like other parents mentioned, using the reserve fund to me is not the same thing as a surplus, like we have extra money that we want to get used before the end of the year,” O’Malley said.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Kurtis Kotes said the administration will focus on first reopening Hawthorne Elementary School but needs to make sure that the teachers being interviewed are qualified to serve.
He also cautioned that while the district is planning for a full reopening in September, if the Department of Health is still requiring distancing, the only option is to return to remote learning.
“We will not be able to sustain adding this number of staff without significantly cutting from somewhere else, and if the resources are down because that money is gone, we would not be able to pay for the additional staff,” Kotes said.