Amherst Public Schools To Launch “Phase 1” Of Reopening On October 15

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UMass-Amherst Logs Five New Off-Campus COVID-19 Cases 

The Amherst Regional Public Schools are set to open for 300 students in priority groups today (10/15) marking the first time since mid-March that children will set foot in local school buildings. 

Meanwhile, UMass-Amherst added five new COVID-19 cases among off-campus students to its testing Dashboard on October 14, for a total of 144 cases in the UMass community since early August. The Town of Amherst’s new COVID-19 web page showed 53 “active” COVID-19 cases, with 263 in total town-wide since the pandemic began.  

The public school district has been operating remotely since the start of school on Septeber 16. 

The “Phase 1” reopening will include preschool, kindergarten and first grade pupils, those in special education programs, English language learners and children who are homeless or in foster care. Phase 2 (second and third grades), would start November 2, and Phase 3 (grades four through 12) on November 30, if the COVID-19 case rate falls within the accepted range. Older elementary children might attend in-person just two days per week, and middle and high school one day until February. 

In public comments to the Regional School Committee on October 6, parents expressed their wish for children to return to school buildings. 

“There is not any 100 percent protection from transmitting COVID and it is not going to disappear. However, critical windows of learning will,” wrote parents from ARPS United, a group calling for a responsible return to in-person learning.  “If Long Island, NY, can be fully in-person, why can’t we?” wrote Mary and Brian Klaes, Stephanie Hockman, .Allecia Reid, Jeremy Brown, Carlo Dallapiccola and others.  The group has said that in-person learning should be available for those families that want it.

Students returning to school buildings will be expected to wear face coverings daily, and extras will be available in each school. Staff will have access to personal protective equipment, including KN95 masks for those who work in close contact with children.  

The reopening was initially slated for October 1, but was delayed when COVID-19 case counts exceeded the limits agreed on by the District and the Amherst-Pelham Education Association (APEA.) Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris announced on Tuesday, October 13 that “Phase 1” would go forward on the 15th. 

“Thank you for your patience and understanding,” Morris wrote to the community in an email on Tuesday. “The good news is that the uptick in new COVID cases that caused the delay … has significantly subsided in the past week.”

Amherst was designated “high risk” for COVID-19 by the state Department of Public Health (DPH) on Wednesday, October 7, following the diagnosis of 95 new COVID-19 cases in the prior two weeks. Most were tied to off-campus housing occupied by UMass students.

The UMass-Amherst Case Descriptions page shows that the five cases added on Wednesday were in off-campus students tested on Oct. 12, who were asymptomatic and are now self-isolating on-campus. There were three positive tests among off-campus students October 7, but just one each day on the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th. 

Morris was hopeful in Tuesday’s email that the local numbers may be declining, and do not indicate a widespread outbreak. “It is worth noting that, according to the local Health Department, the recent cluster associated with UMass did not show evidence of spread to the larger communities of Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury,” he stated.   

The COVID-19 case metrics on Tuesday morning were 22 positive cases per 100,000 people, based on a formula combining data from Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties. That number is below the threshold of 28 per 100,000 set in the Memorandum of Agreement ratified last week by the APEA and the Regional School Committee. 

Parents have questioned whether the metrics adopted by the District are too stringent, and pointed out that the State has set a much more lenient threshold of 56 cases per 100,000. 

The District plans to review data every Friday, and include the COVID-19 case metrics in its weekly Friday newsletter, so that any change to in-person schooling will be announced before the weekend.

The District said that all classrooms to be used in Phase 1 have been tested for ventilation and air flow, with  four air changes per hour at a minimum. Five rooms at Amherst Regional High School initially tested lower, but following work by facilities staff, four of those rooms are now above the air change minimum, while the fifth room will not be used in the current phase.

Families of students who are attending school will receive a daily self-check health and safety message via email and text. Each school will have a certified nursing assistant on site, in addition to the registered nurse, to assist with any safety and health concerns and support an isolation room if anyone has possible COVID symptoms.

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