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Union Local prepares for graduation, next school year

MORRISTOWN — The Union Local Board of Education prepared to close out the school year during another virtual meeting, streamed live on Facebook Thursday due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

There were some initial issues with internet connection and background noise as the board’s second virtual meeting began. A total of 101 people watched.

The district’s program to provide meals to students was one issue of discussion. The system has partnered with local restaurants in the district’s communities to provide hot meals to students two days per week.

“We averaged close to 150 meals on those days, so I would say we were over 2,000 hot meals served in partnership with those restaurants,” Superintendent Ben Porter said. “Along with that, we had a backpack program at the elementary and at the middle school and high school, which was largely supported by our staff in donations. … There were others in the community who donated.

“We were able to provide fresh produce eggs, milk, ground beef, chicken breast, bread, juice,” Porter said. “At the elementary that was close to 40 families and the middle school, high school, we were right around 15. We were able to do some good things.”

There are no plans to extend the program after the last day of school, which is today.

“Those types of programs show the importance of public schools,” board member Dr. Shaun Roe said. “Those are kids who may not have had a meal but what the school provides. … It’s really amazing.”

The board must also determine what modifications must be made to the school buildings when students are able to return to classes in person. The board voted to contract the architectural firm Addis-Davis-VenWey of Zanesville, Ohio, to begin examining the buildings.Prior to the pandemic, the district had been considering a long-term plan for improvements to the buildings with some analysis during the summer.

“With the COVID situation right now, that plan’s taken a step back. We’re really trying to look at our buildings and see what modifications we can make to enable students to come back at this point and time. Obviously that determination is out of our hands, but we want to be prepared with an environment that is safe,” Porter said.

Recommendations are expected to include no-touch sinks, hand sanitizer stations and adjustments to windows that currently do not open to allow fresh air. The architects should begin their examination soon, and the board hopes to receive the report and costs soon.

“If there’s environmental modifications to be made, we need to get started right now,” Porter said.

Other questions such as any new duties for security personnel or practices during mandatory checks at metal detectors must also be considered.

Meanwhile, Treasurer Janet Hissrich conveyed some grim news about the impact of the pandemic on Union Local’s updated five-year financial forecast for 2020-2024.

“We were cut $283,000 for the last two months of Fiscal Year ’20, May and June, and the information I’m getting is to expect a 10 percent cut for next year if things continue to go the way they are,” Hissrich said. “Keep in mind, things change day-to-day. … I don’t know what next year’s going to bring as far as state requirements.”

She said, for example, that although restaurants have been open, food has not been consumed on the premises and, as a consequence, is not taxable. DIne-in service was permitted to resume Thursday.

“The state … has taken a huge hit on sales tax,” she said.

Board member Dan Lucas asked when the board might hold another in-person meeting, with some hoping that can occur next month.

Porter said he is meeting with other superintendents and awaiting word from the governor’s office for information to determine that, as well as what next school year will look like in terms of restrictions.

“It’s been a trying few months for everybody, not just Union Local School District, across the state, across the country,” Porter said. “I know there’s a lot of questions right now as to what next year’s going to look like, and I wish I could give a definitive answer.”

Several board members expressed dissatisfaction with the logic behind state restrictions.

Graduation will be held May 30 and May 31, with close to 110 senior graduates. Porter said the district is making an effort to create a memorable event for the departing students.

Students will visit the campus one at a time to have their diplomas presented, and the staff members involved will wear masks. No large audience will be allowed to gather. Officials recommend that students participants wear masks, but they will not be required to do so.

“It’s going to be a blended ceremony where the kids are going to be able to walk one at a time to get their diploma, and then we’ll do a virtual compilation of everything. We are excited for it. Obviously it’s not a traditional ceremony like we would hope to have, but we believe it’ll be good quality.”

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