Westport's new school: Students may not all fit on opening day

Some grades may have to stay at old school until Covid-19 protocols end

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 2/18/21

Westport’s brand new $97 million school may not be big enough to hold all of the grade 5-12 students who expect to attend on opening day next September.

That alert came from Thomas Aubin, …

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Westport's new school: Students may not all fit on opening day

Some grades may have to stay at old school until Covid-19 protocols end

Posted

Westport’s brand new $97 million school may not be big enough to hold all of the grade 5-12 students who expect to attend on opening day next September.

That alert came from Thomas Aubin, interim superintendent of schools, who told the School Committee that Covid-19 distancing needs may make it impossible to squeeze in all of those grades right away.

And if that’s the case, several grades may have to remain back at the present middle-high school. 

“If the protocols are still in place, we are going to have to take a good hard look at whether go in full based on limitations of space at the new building,” the superintendent said.

“I think everyone is painfully aware of the detrimental effects of hybrid and remote learning on students,” he continued.

“I desperately want to get every single student in every day. You cannot replicate in-person learning … Beyond that, the social interaction that these kids have lost for close to a year” will also have detrimental effects.

“We’ve got some heavy work ahead of us — I think it would be educational malpractice for me not to bring this to you.”

It is a significant issue, Supt. Aubin said, with serious budget implications. He asked that the committee table an agenda item involving action on the school budget until there has been adequate time to study the possible need to open the new school while continuing to run the old one.

School Committee Chairman Antonio Viveiros agreed with that assessment.

“If the protocols are still in place in September, and more than likely they will be, we want to bring everyone in together. There’s a good chance we’ll want to use the existing high school and throw a couple of grades in.”

Classrooms in the new school vary in size — some are the same or bigger than those in the old school, some are actually smaller, school officials said. That means that current distancing standards won’t allow enough students per classroom in the new school to fit all of grades 5-12.

Another challenge would be fitting all the students into the new cafeteria areas and the gym.

Committee member Nancy Stanton-Cross said the schools have already explained to the town that they will likely have continued need to house the school administration offices in the old school next year (the new school has no central administration space).

“As daunting as it may be … we need to develop a Plan B that says, ‘Identify the classes that would need to move over there.”

That also involves figuring out how to put the old school up for sale, as the town has been planning, while that Main Road building continues to function as a school.

“I personally really want our juniors and seniors to be able to be in the new school,” Ms. Stanton-Cross said. “They are at the end of their time in Westport.”

Any use of two school buildings at once will also  bring higher costs and budget impact, she added.

“Even though there are savings in the new building, we can’t run the old building full throttle on the budget they have given us.”

I hate to suggest it, committee member Melissa Pacheco said, but, “What if we kept our district the way it is and moved (grades) 7 to 12 to the new school and kept the other grades as they are because there is obviously room — they are in full and it is working. Would there be enough space not bringing over two of the grades (5 and 6) to the new building?”

Among things that need to happen, the superintendent and chairman said, will be tours of the new school to get a better look at how to many students and staff can safely fit there within state distancing protocols.

 

School furnishings a concern

Higher than expected bid prices for so-called “fixtures, furniture and equipment” for the new school continue to be a budget concern.

The School Building Committee has discussed that several times and Mr. Viveiros brought it up at the February 4 School Committee meeting.

Those items —“all the stuff” that goes inside the school, from furnitures to gym equipment — has come in roughly $226,000 over the budgeted $1.4 million.

“We are spending about $1,900 per student,” on those things, he said — some districts spend much more, some spend less.

And making matters worse, a lot of the gym and athletic equipment that the schools thought they were ordering — including rowing machine, exercise bikes etc. — seem to have been removed from the list.

Mr. Viveiros said that the contractor made a comment “that kind of bothered me. He said, ‘Well they really didn’t ask for much in the Athletic Department.’”

But Mr. Viveiros said he checked and “We actually did — it just didn’t make it on the list.”

These items will push the price higher, “but we’ve got to fight for the things we need in the school. We don’t want to open up a new school and find out a week later” that we don’t have the things we need.

Ms. Stanton-Cross recommended  school visits to “make sure that areas are properly equipped. We only get one shot at this.”

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