TREMONT— Use of Pacific Hall for kindergarten and first-grade students will not happen this school year, at least not with COVID-19 relief funds.
Members of the Tremont Consolidated School Committee held a special meeting last week to discuss moving forward with plans to explore the building at 735/7 Tremont Road. They were up against a deadline to submit an application for about $170,000 in COVID-19 relief funds that would be used in part to help bring the space into compliance for school use; now that money will be reallocated at the school building.
“The reality is, these funds won’t be part of looking into another space after five days,” Principal Jandrea True told the school committee during the meeting last Wednesday.
During the Board of Selectmen meeting on Monday, Town Manager Chris Saunders informed the selectmen that the school was unable to acquire the funds to continue pursuing use of Pacific Hall. An application before the Planning Board for change of use of the building to school use was withdrawn and a public hearing set for Dec. 8 was canceled.
School committee members expressed concern during their special meeting about narrowing the search for extra space for school use to Pacific Hall. True said the school was looking for other options in the community, but there are few, and use of a space is restricted against other uses once it becomes a school space during a pandemic.
A lack of space at the school is the reason why officials are looking for an additional space for students. Pandemic guidelines for in-school learning require at least 6 feet of space between students throughout the day. Classroom sizes have been reduced to accommodate this, and staff are moving around the building for different subjects instead of students.
“I don’t have a space in the building that isn’t being used,” True told the school committee. “We talked about putting a table and chair in this doorway (of the community room) for teachers to have a space to plan… We don’t have a French space right now. We don’t have a teacher space right now. We don’t have a library right now.”
Both True and Superintendent Marc Gousse voiced concern about being able to complete any construction or renovations on Pacific Hall by Dec. 31, which was the deadline attached to the COVID-19 relief funds.
“It is in fact a reimbursement model,” Gousse told the school committee, explaining that the work would need to be completed and undergo review by the state for compliance before funds were received. “Do I think we can meet the deadline? I’m concerned about that process.”
True supported that sentiment, expressing doubt about finding available contractors for the work.
“If we aren’t pretty much on their books right now, then we’re not going to be,” she said, adding that everyone is looking for help with air and heating systems in response to the pandemic.
Jessica Bass, a member of the school committee, said she would like to see a subcommittee formed to explore options for either expansion of the school building, future use of Pacific Hall or use of another space.
A prekindergarten program was put on hold for this school year because of budget concerns during the pandemic. Pacific Hall has been mentioned as a possible location for that program, which was slated to be a half-day program at Pemetic Elementary School. However it shakes out, school committee members, True and Gousse all agreed it is time to think about how to expand learning space for Tremont students.
“The trend, particularly in this community, is not to regress, but only to rise,” said Gousse at the meeting.
Although the need is great for this school year, a plan for more space is still up in the air.
“We are really good at getting creative with students these days,” said True. “I have 11 classrooms with students right now. Of that, six cannot accept any more kids. They would have to be put on a waiting list or attend a virtual academy that is already overloaded.
“We have to consider we could be doing school in a very similar way next year,” she added. “We need to look at how we move forward long term.”