Numerous parents of children in the Amherst, Pelham, and Regional public schools contacted their school committees this week to express disappointment with the district’s plan for an all-remote start to the school year.
Remote learning is set to begin district-wide on September 16. The date was formerly also supposed to signal a return to physical buildings by “priority groups,” such as special education students, English language learners, and very young children. However, with negotiations between the district and its labor unions still underway, a priority-group return date of October 1 at the earliest is under discussion.
The Town of Amherst currently has 11 cases of COVID-19, with a running total since the pandemic began of 130 cases. The Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which has data through August 22, shows an average daily case incidence of 2.8 per 100,000 people for Hampshire County, while according to the national volunteer organization CovidActNow, the county’s COVID-19 numbers have increased slightly to four cases per 100,000 people as of August 27. CovidActNow deems the pandemic’s status in Hampshire County as “slow disease growth,” which is “not contained, but at low levels.” Additional statistics on the pandemic in Massachusetts are here.
Citing the low COVID-19 case numbers in the region, some parents called on the district to cautiously and slowly reopen schools for in-person learning, and said that children suffer substantial risks when deprived of in-person school.
“Schools are places where children receive mental and emotional wellness checks, where hunger or child abuse can be detected, and where students have…socialization and physical activity,” stated a letter signed by Alex Hirshberg, Allecia Reid, Amy Kravitz, Andrew Cox, and about 55 other parents. “The unfortunate reality is that COVID-19 will be in our lives for many years.” Some of those parents have formed “ARPS United,” which is advocating for “as much safe, in-person learning as possible” based on scientific health metrics. “Western Massachusetts…has COVID statistics right now that other states would like to achieve to be able to re-open. We must use metrics that are not extreme outliers,” stated the group, which includes Mary Klaes, Alethea O’Donnell, and Stephanie Hockman.
The Amherst Pelham Education Association, which represents teachers, paraprofessionals, and clerical staff, earlier this month issued a proposal calling for remote learning starting September 16, to be followed by individualized on-site services beginning at the earliest on October 28, “only if and when safety metrics are met.” That proposal calls for hybrid learning to be phased-in by grade level beginning on February 1 at the earliest.
A week ago, the District and APEA announced a “settlement agreement” regarding the in-person school start, setting October 1 as the earliest possible start date. The extension was to enable the district and union to collaborate on standards related to building safety, including heating and ventilation systems, and personal protective equipment.
Amherst teacher Molly Millay stated that she is “saddened” by how the school committees received the APEA’s proposal for a safe return. “There is no good solution…it’s a choice between something not great and something deadly,” she wrote in an August 25 public comment. “I am not willing to sacrifice myself, my family, my students or my colleagues…. What if it’s your child that dies?”
Parents said they support the APEA in its request for personal protective equipment and other safety measures, but believe a phased-in approach, beginning with the community’s youngest and most vulnerable students, should take place this fall. Some expressed concerns about the phased return model, in which middle and high school students will be allowed back into buildings last, and only if certain health metrics are met. That arrangement “all but guarantees that high school students will be denied in-person learning,” this year, said Tina Furcolo of Amherst in a public comment via voicemail. Furcolo, who is a doctor, urged the committee to use the state’s health guidance and standards rather than more stringent metrics.
School Superintendent Michael Morris, who has said repeatedly that he believes in-person learning is superior to remote learning, sought to reassure families that remote learning in coming months will be very different and much improved from the emergency offerings last spring. There will be “high quality synchronous instruction for every student, every day,” he said, adding that families that want more live instruction and a structured, reliable, remote experience were heard. “I think they will be pleased with what they see,” he said.
However, in response to questions from the school committees, Morris did not offer specific information on the amount of live teaching children will receive. He said it will vary based upon each student’s classes and needs, and that more details will be forthcoming.
Morris could not declare with certainty that in-person school for some children will begin on October 1. “That is our current plan, we still need to negotiate…that would be the aim, that would be my hope,” he said.
He also said he does not favor the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s guidance calling for teachers to return to buildings to provide remote learning, although he said that option will be available for teachers who want it.
In a public comment, Alethea O’Donnell of Amherst criticized the APEA for resisting set minimums for the amount of live remote instruction that teachers will provide. “Our experience with the emergency distance learning was dismal,” she said, adding that her family is considering other online options for their high-school aged daughter, including charter schools and Greenfield Community College.
Morris said that negotiations underway involve the APEA, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Association of Professional Administrators.
Amherst resident Jennifer Cox wrote that she has withdrawn her three children from Crocker Farm Elementary for this school year. “For my family, remote instruction did not work in the spring, and will not work in the fall. There is no adult at home during the day…I had two options; hire someone to come to my home every day and supervise distance learning, or find a private school that was implementing safety measures that would allow in-person instruction.”
Stephanie Hockman, of Pelham, said parents could help the district reopen schools by setting up tents, riding buses to check students’ temperatures and enforce social distancing, monitoring hallways, and proctoring classrooms.
“We are an educated and innovative community that can find creative solutions to make in-person, live instruction work so that our students don’t fall further behind,” Hockman stated.
The school committees will meet again next Wednesday, September 2, starting at 6:30 p.m. with an executive session for collective bargaining. The agenda is here.