Amherst Regional Public Schools will open buildings to the district’s youngest and most vulnerable students next Thursday, October 1, while the majority will continue learning remotely.
A letter was sent to “Phase 1” families this week, stating that the district is excited to welcome children back. Numerous COVID-19 risk-reduction measures were adopted over the summer, including modifications to buildings, reconfiguration of classrooms, and six-foot distancing between desks. “Medical waiting rooms” were created in each building, so that any student or staff member suspected of being contagious can be separated from the general population while awaiting pick-up.
“Only rooms with windows will be used for student instruction, while outdoor tents have been set up at each building to allow for extended learning spaces,” the letter said.
Masks will be required for all students and staff, while health and safety protocols for entering and exiting buildings, and riding buses have been established.
The Phase 1 return will include children in preschool, kindergarten, and first grade, plus those who are homeless, English language learners, and special education students. It calls for the specified students to return five days a week, from 9:50 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. at the elementary schools, and 9 a.m. to 2:20 p.m. at the middle and high schools.
Remote Learning Improved Since Spring
Meanwhile, remote school has been underway district-wide since September 16, with high school and middle school students on a new block schedule, consisting of fewer courses overall but longer class sessions. Schools Superintendent Michael Morris told the Amherst, Pelham and Regional School Committees that he has gotten numerous comments about the remote learning, including that it has significantly improved. “This feels really different from last spring,” he said at the September 22 meeting.
Morris’ view was echoed by Amherst Regional Middle School teacher Alicia Lopez in a public comment. “It is 100 times better overall,” she said. Lopez added that she remains concerned that COVID-19 case counts will rise when children start returning to school buildings, and questioned whether building ventilation systems are sufficient.
Rebecca Klaus, a teacher at Wildwood Elementary, asked in a public comment why surveys and emails sent to families about their technology needs over the summer were only written in English and Spanish. Klaus said some children speaking other languages missed the start of school because they lacked equipment. “The result has been disastrous for a handful of families in Amherst,” she said.
Morris said later that there have been three rounds of Chromebook laptop distribution. The district also lent out 100 internet hotspots and has ordered more. Last spring, the Amherst Pelham Regional Schools Parent-Guardian Organizations created a GoFundMe to purchase hotspots and internet access for district families in need.
A tentative agreement for the October 1 return date was reached by the district and APEA (Amherst Pelham Education Association) on September 11. Meanwhile, contract negotiations are still underway between the district and APEA, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Negotiations are set to resume on September 29 in an executive session of the Amherst, Pelham, and Regional School Committees. An agenda is here.
On September 22, a Memorandum of Agreement was reached between the district and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). That agreement, shown briefly on-screen during the virtual school committee meeting, states that 11 UFCW employees had returned to work on September 14 and all others were furloughed, although no number was specified. The furloughed workers will be called back based on seniority as more students return.
Health and Safety Metrics Set
On September 11, the district and APEA agreed to health and safety metrics for holding in-person school, including that there be fewer than 28 new cases per week per 100,00 people (using a 7-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin, and Hampden Counties, with Hampshire County weighed more heavily than the other two. The agreed-upon metrics also include a positive test rate of less than 2.5 percent.
The tentative agreement calls for second and third graders to return five days a week on October 19, and all students on November 16, although it indicates that not all will attend full-time. Pupils in fourth through sixth grade would attend either two or five days a week, while students in grades seven through 12 would attend one day a week, increasing to two days in February.
In a public comment at the September 22 meeting, Amherst resident Aren Scanlan-Emigh, who has children at the middle and high schools, noted that the region’s COVID-19 numbers are lower than the standards recently set by the district and APEA. “Why on earth are we not moving to reopen schools now?” he asked.
The Indy sent an email to Morris on September 24 with questions about the Phase 1 return, including whether the district is confident that enough teachers will be on-site October 1 to staff the schools, how many children are expected, and the number of children who will be riding school buses.
The Indy also asked if Morris could confirm the date for Phase 2 to begin, and inquired about whether the district got a letter from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE.) That agency sent letters to several districts last week, urging a return to in-person school in communities with low COVID-19 case numbers. Morris replied via email that he would address these questions next Tuesday. (Amherst School Committee Vice Chair Peter Demling said via email on Sept. 26 that the district had not received such a letter from DESE.)