The Amherst School Committee voted unanimously on Thursday, July 23 to provide “reasonable accommodations” for district employees with underlying medical conditions who don’t want to work on-site at schools this fall.

However, the local and regional committees have so far stopped short of agreeing to accommodate all staff members who want to work remotely, including those who cite concerns about the health of their household members.

It is unknown what percentage of Amherst Regional Public School (ARPS) employees have submitted requests to work remotely, although the Amherst-Pelham Education Association (APEA), which represents teachers, clerical workers and paraeducators, announced July 7 that it opposed a return to in-person learning. 

At Thursday’s meeting, Amherst School Committee Chair Allison McDonald and member Peter Demling cited the need for sufficient on-site staff to provide a “free and appropriate education” for students, including those who are unable to learn remotely.

Committee members Kerry Spitzer and Heather Lord have argued that teachers who live with a medically-vulnerable household member should also be granted accommodations, but ultimately voted with McDonald and Demling. (A fifth committee member, Ben Herrington, recused himself as a district employee.)

The district “will seek to accommodate staff who for any reason  …express a preference for full or mostly remote work, to the extent that such positions are needed and available, and based on the instructional model and student preferences.”

However, Thursday’s vote was tied to an agreement that the staff portion of  a fall planning document be brought again to the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees, on Tuesday, July 28. The agenda is here.

ARPS Superintendent Michael Morris has said that remote learning is not feasible for all students, including some who have special needs. Demling warned on July 23 that if the district fell short of teachers willing to provide on-site special education this fall, it would have to bus students to other districts and pay for placements.  

“We cannot guarantee staff accommodations that by design, would prevent us from delivering what we’ve identified as the free and appropriate education of all students,” he said. A video of the July 23 meeting is here.

Meanwhile, Morris has outlined a plan for phased re-opening, in which students in special education programs, along with English-language learners and homeless children return to school buildings first, in early September. That first phase would include about 30 percent of all elementary students and 10 percent of middle and high school students, with numbers rising in stages over weeks or months until full school populations are on-site. Depending on what phasing model the school committees choose, the last batches of students could return in October, or January.

The models presented by Morris on July 21 (on page 16 here ) prioritize the youngest pupils, and add grades over time. Morris has said that dates for phases might change, based on public health data.

It remains unclear exactly how many days per week the district’s children will attend school in-person, versus remotely from home. Under plans discussed last week, only grades K-3 in Amherst and K-4 in Pelham would be at school buildings five days per week, with older elementary pupils on-site for two days weekly.  Under the latest proposal, middle school students would attend in person two days weekly, and high school students one or two days.

Draft schedules show all the schools starting later in the morning. The elementary school day would begin at 9:50 a.m. and end at 3:10 p.m., and middle and high schools would run from 9 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. At the secondary level, students would have fewer classes per day than in the past, with each one lasting for an hour and 20 minutes.

A few weeks ago, Morris proposed that Crocker Farm’s 5th and 6th grade pupils be moved to the middle school to allow for six-foot distancing between desks. However, a diagram he shared last week keeps Crocker Farm’s upper grades in the elementary building, attending physically on a twice-weekly basis.

Teachers have submitted numerous public comments to the local and regional school committees, advocating for the year to begin with full-time remote learning. “We want to be sensible and smart about health and safety,” states a July 21 letter signed by 24 teachers including APEA President Mick O’Connor. “The marginal educational gains provided by in-person learning, compared to distance learning (if any gains exist) do not outweigh the risked cost in human lives.”

Eighteen elementary school staff, most associated with special education programs at Fort River and Wildwood, stated that having their students return to school “will be a life-threatening safety risk.” That group, including Jessica Rudnik, Kristen Rhodes and Manny Wineman, wrote that six-foot distancing is unrealistic for their students.

“When staff are not in close proximity, engagement in learning is unrealistic and managing challenging behaviors is not possible … it is likely that the majority of students in the programs will be unwilling or unable to wear a mask,” they stated.

The special education teachers, who said they are sometimes subject to spitting, crying and biting by their pupils, argued that remote learning can work for many of their pupils, by “having constant supportive communication with families through email, phone, and Google text.” 

In another letter, teachers Nick Shaw and Krista Larsen of the high school’s science department stated that the air-handling system in the newest part of the building is “insufficient,” often leading to a 300% rise in the exhaled gas Co2 over the course of a day.

“Adding a HEPA filter to that inadequate system isn’t going to solve the problem of removing the COVID-19 virus from the air,” they wrote.

The district’s policy granting accommodations to employees with personal medical conditions, but not necessarily to those with medically-vulnerable household members, initially failed an Amherst School Committee vote on July 21, when Spitzer and Lord declined to support it. Only McDonald voted in favor of it then, as Herrington and Demling had recused themselves.

Herrington recused himself again on July 23, but Demling, whose wife is a district employee, said that he sought legal guidance and determined he could participate. Demling claimed he could vote objectively on the issue, and said he followed the state’s procedure for disclosing a potential conflict of interest by filing written notice with the Town Clerk.

Click here to read another story about the ongoing negotiations between staff and School Committee that appeared in Monday’s (7/27) Daily Hampshire Gazette.

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  1. Thank you so much for the clear reporting Marla. It looks like our high schoolers will not be back in the Fall then. This is the first I’m hearing of that.

  2. I do not understand why some of the most vulnerable students in our district will be put at risk first.
    Ross Tracy

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