BARTLETT — Josiah Bartlett Elementary School will start the school year with face-to-face learning on Sept. 8, along with a distance learning option (see related story) for families who do not want their child to return to campus.
The Bartlett School Board voted unanimously 5-0 Tuesday — at its first in-person meeting since March 2 — to hold in-person classes in Bartlett.
The vote followed by one night a similar one taken by the Conway School Board, which opted for face-to-face learning at their schools as well.
Adding more drama to the Bartlett meeting, the board also accepted the immediate resignation of three longtime teachers who are opting to leave due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to several board members.
The board, after leaving the cafeteria to meet outdoors in non-public session for 10 minutes, returned with chairman Nancy Kelemen announcing the retirement of Amelia “Jimi” Emery, the school’s technology coordinator; Val Ford, a second- and third-grade teacher; and June McLeavey, the art teacher, effective immediately.
Ford taught at JBES for 25½ years; McLeavey, 24 years; and Emery, who as a child attended the school, 26.
“I would like to thank those three teachers for their years of dedication to the school and the students,” Kelemen said after she and colleagues Rob Clark, Dr. Ivette Emery, Scott Grant and Andrew Light unanimously accepted the retirement requests.
“It is sad to see them leave, but I am very happy for them to start on their new adventures and wish them well,” she said.
Principal Joe Yanha, who was also at the meeting, spoke about the three veteran educators.
“All three of them have offered so much to our students, and those of you that have had kids in this building, you know how special they are and how much they’ll be missed. I wish them the very best in their retirement,” he said.
School Superintendent Kevin Richard on Wednesday called Emery, Ford and McLeavey “very dedicated educators” and a “part of the heart” of JBES.
He said the three positions will be advertised, and the board hopes to fill them by Sept. 8.
While the board met in person, except for Emery, Yahna, Superintendent Kevin Richard, Assistant Superintendent Kadie Wilson and SAU 9 Director of Special Services Pam Stimpson, 59 others attend the meeting remotely via Zoom.
The news of the retiring teachers drew quick comments.
Robin Fall, a grade 4/5 teacher at JBES, posted: “Sad to lose such gifted educators.”
A parent added: “They are incredible! Sad to see them go.”
The board opened its meeting by allowing the public to comment on the three options — face-to-face, remote learning or a hybrid of the two — that were crafted by a 50-member SAU 9 Re-Entry Committee, which met for seven weeks to create a plan, along with a distance-learning option.
Parent Ray Gilmore, father of five children, was the lone citizen to offer a comment, seeking some clarification on distance learning.
“In the re-entry plan booklet, on page 17, it refers to our curriculum being farmed out to either VLACS (Virtual Learning Academy Charter School, based in Exeter) or based on a Common Core standard and materials from Florida Virtual Learning school,” he said.
“This is a serious issue for a number of parents, myself included. We want our children’s education to remain local and integrated. Many families have experienced and explicitly stated that they would home-school before being dumped into VLACS or pushed to a Common Core Curriculum from Florida as it states on page 17. I think that’s a huge problem,” Gilmore said.
He added: “Bartlett is a very tight-knit community with amazing educational opportunities. These opportunities are what has driven many of us to choose this location to live and raise our families.
“At this time, many of us prefer distance learning options endorsed by the school in coordination with the classrooms that will allow our children to stay on track with their year group. We do not want to abandon the Josiah Bartlett Elementary School or any of the school systems in SAU 9.”
Richard spoke about distance learning. “This has been a challenge unlike any other challenge, and I appreciate the number of parents who provided some guidance, and I think that Mr. Gilmore was correct in the underestimation of the number of people who prefer distance learning to stay connected with the school.”
He added: “There was a definite demand. So now we have this supply and demand piece of people who are saying, ‘Boy, you know, we get it, even with best-laid plans, we just don’t feel comfortable or we have conditions that would preclude us from coming face-to-face to the schools.’ So then it became this distance learning model. Well, what we would love to do is absolutely support both of these pieces together.”
Richard said providing both creates several challenges. “In order to support both face-to-face and keep those numbers low in the cohorts, we plan on utilizing every staff member all the time — we have to do that — and use every space within the building,” he said.
“To support the distance learning piece, we also have to take a look at the number of students that we do have by grade level who would need that level of support. So we’re trying to balance those interests, and the boards have been very flexible to say, ‘OK, depending upon the number of students that we do have, we’re going to potentially share resources across the across the SAU.”
He added: “If we have a cohort of four first-grade students in Conway, four Bartlett and four Jackson, maybe we could work together to keep those first-graders together. So the model right now for distance learning is, in an ideal perfect world, we’d love to have every Bartlett student with a Bartlett teacher within that grade level or grade level span, maybe it’s a multi-age grade level. And that’s why the Bartlett staff members have been calling up (families) and trying to get a commitment.”
Kelemen said: “Originally, the re-entry plan, as we had discussed at SAU, was that the original plan was either face-to-face, a hybrid or remote. When we did (community) listening sessions, there were some people that would really like distance learning, and now we’re all working with that.”
Richard said SAU 9 surveyed parents, garnering 1,100 responses. Of those, 75.8 percent wanted face-to-face learning, while 24.2 percent preferred distance learning.
“That really wasn’t too surprising as statewide, superintendents are finding 75 percent of families prefer face-to-face instruction,” Richard said.
Grant made the motion to return to school with face-to-face education and distance learning. Light seconded it. The board voted 5-0 to go that route.
“I do want to say from the board that the administrators and the staff are trying and working day in and day out to get the students back into this building and on our distance learning,” Kelemen said.
“We are grateful for all their work. If the parents have not made decisions yet, we would ask that you let Joe (Yahna) know as soon as possible so we can work on completing the staffing, to try to have as many Bartlett teachers, and also SAU teachers, for these students.”