All children in Amherst Regional Public Schools will not be able to attend simultaneously this fall, according to models designed to reduce Covid-19 risks presented by the Superintendent of Schools Michael Morris on Wednesday.

The District will have to make hard decisions so it can “de-densify” numbers of children in school buildings and comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, Morris told the Amherst, Pelham, and Regional School Committees. The meeting video is available on Amherst Media and can be viewed here. Morris’ presentation can be viewed here.

“Returning to ‘normal’ models of schooling will not be feasible, and this will be upsetting to many people,” Morris said at the virtual meeting. The main issue is space limitations, while financial and staffing constraints will also reduce options. “If funding was no object, we’d find space for every student, every day,” Morris said.

A survey seeking input from ARPS families about fall planning was emailed on Friday, and the link is here. At Wednesday’s meeting, School Committee member Heather Lord of Amherst urged the district to try and reach out in other ways to families, for example by calling parents or talking to them at the food delivery sites. Lord also asked Morris if his presentation could be made available in Spanish.

The CDC’s guidelines suggest small consistent cohorts of students with designated staff, all seated six feet apart, along with closure or restricted use of communal areas and little or no after-school activities and field trips.

Walls will be built this summer at the Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools, to split existing “quad” spaces in half, according to Morris, and Facilities & Custodial Supervisor Rupert RoyClark. Plans are underway to take down partial walls in quads, and replace them with walls going at least to dropped ceiling height, Roy-Clark said. Morris said concerns about shared air exhaust systems in the four-classroom quads were raised by the district’s head nurse and the town’s health director. As a result, the district also plans to modify ductwork to separate the exhaust flow. These renovations are “essential to keep kids safe,” Roy-Clark said, adding that he will install soundproofing material where possible.

The Wildwood and Fort River wall project will be put out to bid in the next two weeks, however modifications to Wildwood can potentially be done “in-house.” The costs will include six 1,000 square-foot sections of sheet rock, and paint. If the expense can be kept under $50,000, Roy-Clark said, the district won’t be subject to a state-regulated bidding process.

Amherst and municipalities across Massachusetts still await fall guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), which Morris said is expected in a few weeks. About 80 to 90 percent of state guidance will be a “directive,” Morris said, meaning that waivers may be needed to deviate from it.

The CDC’s classroom guidelines will cause space issues for  Amherst’s three elementary schools, and middle and high school. Morris did not say whether the district has explored rental of mobile classrooms, re-use of the now-vacant South East Street School building, or if other municipal or privately-owned buildings could potentially be secured and retrofitted for classrooms. However, in a virtual community conversation this week, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said officials had looked at many spaces, and determined it wouldn’t be financially viable to put small groups in non-standard locations, due to costs for school nurses, building supervisors, and meal deliveries. 

Morris outlined three concepts for reducing numbers at the existing schools. All models suggest more in-person attendance for children with special needs and English language learners than for other students. The ability to put any of the models in place will depend in part on bargaining now underway with staff unions.

The models include:

  • A K-12 “hybrid,” in which all students receive in-person school on alternating days or weeks, with some distance learning when not physically in school. This model, which Morris said may be favored by the state, would split students into groups attending two days per week or every other week.
  • A model prioritizing elementary education, in which grades K-6 would attend school five days per week, with upper elementary grades likely at the middle or high school buildings. Under this plan, Amherst’s middle and high school students would rely “significantly or exclusively” on remote learning, which would be revised or enhanced from the current levels. An elementary prioritization plan might require a state waiver, Morris said.  The state is also expected to suggest “multi-age groupings” possibly including first and second graders.
  • A “split-day” model, consisting of student clusters arriving at staggered times to attend partial days. Morris said such a plan is not viable for Amherst because of the transportation issues it would create, along with custodial challenges posed by the need to clean buildings mid-day.

The presentation received somber responses from school committee members. “I’m confused and I’m overwhelmed,” said Ron Mannino of Pelham. “Some families are going to win, and some families are going to lose.”

Member Peter Demling of Amherst urged the public to send input to the district over the next five weeks, during which decisions will be made. (The committee’s email address is here: Demling expressed frustration with the slow release of guidance and aid to public schools. “Never before have public schools been asked to do so much more with so much less. It’s appalling,” he said. 

Questions were raised by Sarahbess Kenney of Pelham and Ben Herrington of Amherst about the inequities some part-time models would yield, along with the potential strain on working parents who previously relied on regular school schedules.

Lord said she is concerned about the District’s teenagers and the need to support their social and emotional growth, while Acting Regional Chair Allison McDonald, also of Amherst, said she would “hate to see grades 7 through 12 be entirely online” in the fall.

Given the uncertainties, including whether school might need to be halted periodically, Morris said distance learning models must be revised for all grades.

State officials have acknowledged that rollout of distance learning across the Commonwealth has been uneven, with variability between districts and within schools and grades. 

“Virtual learning does not replace in-school education,” when it comes to academic progress, Morris said. He cited cases where prolonged interruptions to in-person school elsewhere led to lost skills and opportunities.  

A survey about distance learning in the Amherst Regional Public Schools, sent to staff and families earlier this spring “aligned with the research base,” showing “limited growth” for younger students, those with special needs, and English language learners, Morris said. The district has not released the results of its survey.

Morris noted that the district will have to be “very cautious” about using substitute teachers this fall to reduce infection risk. “We actually have to plan for things not working well,” he said.

School committee members all participated virtually in Wednesday’s meeting. Complaints from the public about choppy audio persisted for about an hour before changes were made.

The presentation did not address the CDC’s call for temperature checks, or expected state guidance on personal protective equipment, which the committees said they will discuss next Thursday.

The agendas for school committee meetings on June 9 and June 11 can be found here and here.

Toni Cunningham contributed to this article.

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  1. How is it possible that Wildwood and Fort River operated for 50 years with a noisy configuration of quads where 4 classrooms had only partial walls —and now it turns out that full walls will be built? And the work can be done “in-house” and perhaps with for less than $50K extra for outside contractors? Including duct work. That little to convert 4 classrooms per quad to 2 closed rooms. How much would it cost to put up walls to make 4 classrooms? So students and teachers spent decades struggling with noise form the classrooms around them because the district wouldn’t spend a small amount of money to close the quads to 4 classrooms? With an annual elementary school budget of over $20 million?

  2. Yes, it’s a little hard to swallow. I guess there just wasn’t the desire within the administration to push for a solution before now. Instead they claimed it can’t be done without a $20 million renovation.
    According to the Facilities Director, the work will involve removing the existing partitions and a bunch of clutter from the classrooms, and building a 48′ long x 12′ high wall running from the bathrooms on the exterior wall side of the quad to the corridor in the inner part of the building. Since each quad has one air exhaust, ductwork will be added so that both sides of the wall have exhausts for airflow, preventing cross-contamination between the two spaces. The soundproofing will be an added bonus.
    I’m glad they are doing this. Better late than never. And there is a LOT of money available that the elementary schools have already been given for previous capital requests but have not spent. They should have no problem paying for this work.

  3. Maybe the district will now finally hire a contractor repair the Fort River roof, after holding onto the repair money for the past 2 years — as the roof has leaked and leaked. The ceiling has an IV-like system of tubes to collect the leaking water, even as Town Meeting allocated the money years ago.

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