Photo: Amherst Media

Report on the Virtual Meeting of the Amherst School Committee (4/7/20)

The Regional School Committee’s remote meeting on April 7, 2020 was, unsurprisingly, dominated by Covid-19.  

“Distance Learning 2.0” to Begin Soon
Superintendent Michael Morris updated the Committee on the District’s response to recommendations by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) will be following these guidelines, including the institution of remote learning, beginning with orientation this week and moving to full implementation on Monday April 13.  This will involve a combination of teacher- and self-directed learning for half the normal school day and will “focus on reinforcing skills already taught this school year.”  

District and PGOs Join Forces to Provide Internet Access to Families
Addressing technical barriers to implementing this plan, the District has distributed more than 300 Chromebooks to families in grades K-6.  However, many families either do not have internet access, or have lost it because of the financial impact of the pandemic. Parent Guardian Organizations (PGOs) from all District schools responded to this need by raising approximately $25,000 to provide temporary mobile wifi hotspots to these families.  Morris expressed deep gratitude for this outpouring of community support, and commented that this crisis has demonstrated just how much of a “digital divide” exists in Amherst.

Measures to Combat Food Insecurity Ramped Up
The District has also expanded its ongoing food delivery program.  ARPS Nutritional Services, in partnership with UMass, is delivering 2000 meals per week at 14 locations, and will now increase its Friday distribution to help address needs over the weekend.  

ARMS Principal Search Still On
The search for a Middle School Principal continues.  Morris said he expected virtual interviews of semi-finalists to be completed by the end of this week. Plans for how to incorporate public feedback about the finalists are still in flux but may include solicitation of questions in advance of live-streamed interviews.  

Decisions Regarding Remainder of School Year
The state has deferred to local districts decisions about the typical week off in April.  Morris surveyed staff to find out if they would prefer having the entire week off and ending the school year on Monday, June 22 or limiting the break to Monday-Wednesday and ending the school year on Thursday, June 18. Morris reported that 86% of the 377 staff who responded preferred the latter. He recommended the Regional School Committee endorse this change to the school calendar. 

Morris sought feedback about messaging related to students returning to school this year. To date, he has been referencing Massachusetts Governor Baker’s order that schools not resume sooner than May 4.  Morris expressed concern that this might give the impression of an intention to have students back at school soon after that date, something he described as “wildly unrealistic.” Morris felt it would be “more honest and accurate” to acknowledge that it’s very likely schools will remain closed for the rest of the academic  year. All members of the Committee agreed with the messaging change.  

Future Meetings
The committee suggested, in light of the current need for so much time and energy to be devoted to responding to the pandemic, that other agenda items, such as the Superintendent Evaluation Process and updates on district initiatives like the Sixth Grade Advisory Board, be scheduled at the acting Chair’s (Allison McDonald) discretion.  

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