Back to School with the Superintendent
Dr. Susan Kustka, Interim Superintendent of Holliston Public Schools (HPS) since the July 1st departure of Dr. Brad Jackson, talked to us recently about the September 16th reopening of schools, during the COVID 19 pandemic. Throughout our conversation, her care about students and interest in providing them the best in education became clear.
Guidance for Holliston’s reopening plan came from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the MA Education Commissioner. Holliston’s district plan was submitted on August 10, only a few short weeks after Dr. Kustka’s arrival. One major point Holliston included in its plan was a 6’ rather than a 3’ physical distance for all. “Three feet was not feasible,” said Kustka, as we all know the physicality of students—no matter the age. “We decided on a safe 6’ minimum for Holliston,” and then the classroom measuring began.
Holliston also prioritized bringing grades Kindergarten through 3 back to school in person, 5 days a week. Dr. Kustka explained the importance of in-person instruction to develop most effectively students’ literacy and numeracy skills. She added, “Research has shown a greater difficulty in remediating these skills past grade 3.”
Many other towns opted to bring grades 4 through 12 back to school with a 2-day in-school and 2-day remote schedule, allowing Wednesdays to disinfect schools. Holliston’s plan provided more in-person time with its rotating 2 and 3-day weeks for each of two cohorts. In other words, this week Cohort A would be in school Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and next week Monday and Tuesday. Cohort B would attend school on Thursday and Friday the first week and Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday the following. “We felt that 5 in-person days out of 10 was more rigorous,” remarked Kustka. But it also presented other challenges.
Providing an example class of 24 in-person students, Dr. Kustka explained that because of 6’ spacing, the new plan would require 2 classrooms. These students would now also require an additional staff member for the second classroom. And with new health and safety regulations, monitors would also be needed. Two classrooms would require cleaning and disinfecting, and techniques would have to allow for teaching and learning in both rooms.
Because several staff retired prior to the school year and others found employment elsewhere, new faculty had to be hired. Additional paraprofessionals, health and safety monitors, more custodians, nurses, and bus monitors had to be added. Some of these new hires accepted Holliston’s offer and soon after resigned, having found work closer to home or for other reasons. Dr. Kustka quickly emailed this dilemma to parents, eliciting their help. Thanks to two-dozen parents who committed to at least one month of 5 day a week work, Holliston’s plan was on-track for its September 16th opening.
Other challenges were met, Dr. Kustka explained, through ten days of Professional Development programs and offerings within the HPS prior to students’ return. Thankfully, the State reduced the number of required school days for the 2020-21 school year from 180 to 170, which allowed for the extra time faculty and staff could devote to the curricular and technological challenges of remote learning and new guidelines for health and safety.
Dr. Kustka explained that a great purchase made during the summer–sanitizing foggers (electrostatic disinfectant sprayers)–streamlined the classroom cleaning. Each classroom needs to be sanitized 3 times a day. Dr. Kustka said that Keith Buday, Business Manager, was most proud of the acquisition of these foggers. Buildings also underwent some changes. Hall traffic had to be directed by floor dots, some stairways became one-way, 6’ physical distance reminders had to be posted, and bathroom traffic had to be monitored as well.
Another challenging aspect of reopening schools was anticipating the traffic at the Woodland Street schools. “Chief Stone was a great help to us,” said Kustka. There are fewer children taking buses; therefore, there are more cars dropping off and picking up students. The time it takes to enter the building and maintain a 6’ physical distance also increases. All of this sounds like a logistical nightmare, but Dr. Kustka thought it went well.
How does an administrator motivate a staff through all of these many changes? Dr. Kustka gave two answers: by listening and through example. She began the year with an overall theme of “all hands on deck.” All administrators would be filling in where needed—be it for a lunch duty, as a health and safety monitor, or as a stand in for a teacher needing a break. This past week, teachers saw Dr. Kustka on lunch duty as well as reading books to children in classrooms. “Modeling the way,” Dr. Kustka proves that filling in where needed goes a long way toward developing positive attitudes with staff. “Weekend Zoom meetings with staff, holding office hours, just being available,” Dr. Kustka added, are ways that staff may find her.
Of course, the pandemic has changed our lives. We are quick to note what we miss. We wish life could be “like it used to be” as soon as possible. Yet we can also find practices and attitudes that have changed for the better that we’d like to maintain. Dr. Kustka hopes, “The volunteerism piece, the giving back,” is one of the practices we keep. She has seen it and appreciates it here in Holliston. Another valuable practice that Dr. Kustka noted: “Kids not being overscheduled. They have dinner at home with their parents. This family structure, with parents at home.” And lastly, she shared, “The level of respect for teachers that has developed,” as parents stood in for teachers in the early months of COVID, realizing the skills and talents of their children’s teachers. Now that the first 10 weeks in the District are behind her, Dr. Kustka says, “I feel as if I’m prepared for anything!” The Holliston Reporter wishes her a wonderful year with all of our 2,905 children.