The LPS Central Office and sign at golden hour
Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver

Educators wear red shirts in support of continued COVID-19 leave

For the first time this school year, most of the in-person audience seats were filled at the Lexington School Committee’s biweekly meeting on Tuesday. About a dozen educators attended this week’s meeting in person wearing red to show support for an extension of paid COVID leave through the current school year. Other educators attended and spoke virtually.

Superintendent Julie Hackett requested that the School Committee vote to approve a new COVID-19 memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Lexington Education Association (LEA) and the Administrators of Lexington Association (ALA) at the next School Committee meeting Oct. 25. The new MOA would apply to pandemic education aspects of the current 2022-23 school year. While many educators have asked that this MOA include a continuation of district-paid pandemic leave, which was stipulated in last year’s MOA, Hackett wrote in a memo that this provision should not be included in the new MOA. Though providing this paid family sick leave “was the right thing to do” from March 2021 through the 2021-22 school year, she wrote that “as much as we would like to continue the practice of additional family COVID-leave, it is a costly endeavor and not one that is sustainable over the long term.” 

Paid pandemic leave was also federally required and eligible for some federal subsidy for some of the time it was provided by LPS. Hackett noted that few, if any, other districts in the region are continuing to offer paid pandemic leave this school year.

Beyond paid pandemic leave, most Unit A employees have 14 paid sick days per year, which can be used for their own or family illnesses. This is comparable to other unit sick day allocations, but exact allocations vary slightly for some other units. The district also offers a few personal days and a “sick day bank” of unused days employees have returned to the district, which eligible employees can apply to access for their own illnesses once they have exhausted other sick days.

During an opportunity for public comment, LEA President Avon Lewis said that discontinuing pandemic leave could especially force new and prospective parents to make painful tradeoffs. Because LPS does not offer paid parental leave, many educators rely on sick days to spend time with new children. “If we require them to use their sick days for COVID,” she said, “we are forcing them to choose between coming to work sick and having time to bond with their little one.”

Removing pandemic leave would also strain new employees with few sick days saved up, Lewis said.

“We recognize COVID leave is not a thing in many communities,” she added, “but why does that matter?” 

Another educator, Rachel Athens, said that the loss of pandemic sick leave also places stress on families with young children because many daycares still require students to quarantine for 10 days when they contract COVID-19. Without paid pandemic leave, Athens and her husband, also an LPS educator, would face financial strain for staying home with a sick child: “One salary that is not paid in full would create a great financial hardship for us,” she said. 

“Please note that I didn’t use a single COVID sick day last year, even with a newborn in daycare,” she added. “Having access to these days is really vital for me now.”

In her memo, Hackett said she had written a counter-proposal in response to the “valid concerns” about the burdens of losing pandemic leave on young parents. “The counter-proposal would give new employees with children in daycare who have exhausted their sick days the option of submitting to me a request for additional time needed,” she wrote. Lewis responded that this proposal would be inadequate and too narrow to meet educator needs.

The School Committee plans to discuss this MOA in an executive session prior to their open meeting Oct. 25.

Lewis wrote that should the School Committee hold a vote on this memo at their next meeting without full agreement on the MOA from the LEA, “it is a pointless vote.”

Some parents voice opposition to 7:40 a.m. elementary school start time proposal

The School Committee will host two virtual public forums next week to hear parent feedback on a recently introduced proposal to change elementary school start times from 9 a.m. to 7:40 a.m. beginning in the 2023-24 school year. Hackett proposed the change primarily to address current transportation issues, especially elementary school buses arriving home late.

These hour-long forums will take place via Zoom Monday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m. and Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 6 p.m. Individual elementary schools have also held feedback sessions on the proposed change over the past couple of weeks.

Hackett has asked that the School Committee vote on the proposal to shift elementary school start times at its next meeting on Oct. 25 so that parents and educators have time to make any necessary adjustments for the next school year. Many parents have said that they feel Oct. 25 is too soon to make a decision on such a major change.

At Tuesday’s meeting, some parents spoke in person and virtually to oppose the school start time change and Oct. 25 vote. Parents especially expressed concern about the availability of adequate after school care for working parents, impacts on the sleep of young students and a loss of cherished evening family time. 

Parent Meng Yang, who spoke in person at Tuesday’s meeting, is circulating an online petition opposing the proposed changes; at press time, it had gained more than 800 signatures within about a week.

“A question that’s come up often is, ‘is the answer already decided?’” Hackett said at Tuesday’s meeting. “The truth is, no, it isn’t decided; it’s never decided – we’ve seen when we’ve gone through difficult and challenging problems that we reassess and we regroup.” She encouraged community members who both support and propose the proposal to continue sharing feedback.

LexObserver plans to report further on updates and community reactions to this proposal in next week’s newsletter, prior to the scheduled Oct. 25 School Committee vote.

FY23 preliminary enrollment update: Modest growth, mostly at the high school level

Lexington Public Schools enrollment increased for Fiscal Year 2023 to 6,875 students – 85 more than the previous fiscal year – with high school students accounting for most of the increase, according to an update about preliminary LPS enrollment figures based on data from Oct. 1. 

While enrollment at the middle school and elementary school levels increased slightly, enrollments for both categories remain below pre-pandemic levels. High school enrollment increased by 47 students; middle school enrollment increased by 18 students; and elementary school enrollment increased by nine students, according to the preliminary data.

“That is exactly the opposite of what we need to have happened,” Hackett said, referencing the severely overcrowded high school.

Pandemic declines in LPS enrollment were concentrated at the elementary school level, LexObserver previously reported.

Among new students, Lexington Public Schools has also experienced an influx of new students with “significant special needs,” Hackett added.

Diverse hiring update: Increasingly diverse staff, but a dip in overall staff retention

Lexington Public Schools staff are gradually growing more diverse: The LPS workforce has grown from 10.5% employees of color in the 2018-19 school year to 15.3% for the 2021-22 school year. That’s above the state average of 12.8%, and comparable or higher than data for many peer districts, though Brookline had 18.9% employees of color for the 2021-22 school year.

Most recently, 28.3% of LPS employees hired since July 1, 2022 – or 21 out of 74 new employees – identified as employees of color, according to an LPS diverse staffing update.

At the leadership level, the district has hired three new administrators and promoted eight internal candidates to leadership roles since July 1; four of these 11 new staff members identify as employees of color. Two interim leaders of color were also permanently assigned to their leadership roles within this period.

Across the board, staff retention has declined to 85% for the 2021-22 school year after hovering around 90% since 2018. Per the report, “though it is too soon to tell if this is a meaningful change in trend or a one year outlier, it is a data point we should be curious about and continue to monitor closely.” Some other nearby districts have also experienced comparable declines in staff retention, with a few exceptions. 

Across racial and ethnic groups, “retention rates ranged from 82.6% (among Hispanic/Latino staff) to 89.2% (among Asian staff).” Retention decreased the most in the past year among Hispanic and Latinx staff (90.5% to 82.6%) and white staff (89.4% to 84.5%), though variable group sizes make apples-to-apples comparisons across groups challenging.

Moving forward, during this school year the district plans to explore additional strategies to increase staff diversity, such as potentially offering relocation grants to graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) hired at LPS and providing financial support to current staff of color interested in earning teacher or administrator licenses. 

The report also states “we will…continue to monitor the data to determine if our policy shifts and additional training for hiring managers is effecting a positive change in our staffing demographics, particularly in retention rates.” Last year, LPS leadership worked with former Lexington Chief Equity Officer Martha Duffield to develop a new employee demographic survey, which will be administered some time this school year.

During Tuesday’s meeting, School Committee member Larry Freeman asked Director of Equity and Student Support Johnny Cole a question that cut through the data. “In your interactions as you work on DEI with staff,” he wondered, “what is your perception…are the BIPOC staff…happy? Do they feel supported?”

Cole responded with a layered and personal reflection. “Being members of a historically marginalized group is always challenging, particularly in predominantly white institutions like Lexington,” he said. “I’ll answer that even as a staff member of color myself, it’s kind of a loaded question. Do I love my job? Absolutely. Am I happy most days at work? Totally. Is it incredibly hard, being a person of color and a gay man in this environment? Totally.”

“That is what I often hear from many of our staff of color,” Cole said. “They do love what they do, they love coming to work every day, and it’s very challenging being members of historically marginalized groups.”

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