Amherst’s COVID-19 Risk Level Shifts Down from “High” to “Moderate” While Cases Climb Statewide
The COVID-19 risk for the Town of Amherst was shifted downward, from “high” to “moderate,” by the State Department of Public Health (DPH) this week.
“I am pleased to see our rate go down. It indicates the cluster of cases has been contained,” stated Acting Health Director Jennifer Brown. “We must redouble our efforts at adhering to established public health protocols and best practices.”
However, the statewide dashboard shows a steady upward trend in the numbers of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, and the Boston Public Schools announced on Tuesday, October 21 that they would be suspending all in-person learning until the city’s numbers improve.
Amherst was first designated as red or high risk on October 7, amid a surge among off-campus students at UMass-Amherst. At the time, the town’s 14-day average daily incidence rate was nearly 17 cases per 100,000 people, well above the moderate-risk limit of eight cases. In the latest DPH report, Amherst has fallen to just 4.8 cases per 100,000.
The Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) have been remote since the start on September 16, although about 300 children in “Phase 1”priority groups, including preschool through grades one, and those in special education programs, returned to buildings on October 17. However, on October 20, ARPS Superintendent Michael Morris announced that the district’s school buildings will close again starting October 26 for at least two weeks, because COVID-19 case numbers had risen over the agreed limit.
The district’s agreed formula combines data from Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, but weighs Hampshire more heavily and sets a limit of 28 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. The COVID-19 case metrics on October 22 showed 39.4 positive cases per 100,000.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) guidance on learning models suggests districts go all-remote when cases levels reach more than 56 per 100,000 people. (A graphic showing further details of the DESE guidance, produced by the City of Woburn, is here.)
The ARPS formula was set by a Memorandum of Agreement between the Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Amherst-Pelham Education Association (APEA), the union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff. Parents have called for changes to the agreement, to set a higher threshold for COVID-19 cases.
RSC Chairwoman Allison McDonald, in a public Facebook post on Friday, October 23, said she had sent a letter on her committee’s behalf to the APEA. The letter seeks to reopen negotiations on the Memorandum of Agreement and specifically “the decision framework/metrics related to school reopening and closure.”
“Thank you to the many parents, caregivers, and community members who have spoken up and shared their concerns about the decision to close schools for in-person learning. In addition to the more than 130 individuals who voiced their concerns through public comment … we have received countless email and phone calls, and nearly all are imploring us to collaborate … to relook at the decision process or metrics related to school reopening and closure. We heard you,” McDonald wrote.
As of this writing,, the APEA had not responded to an email request for comment from the Amherst Indy.
In a public APEA Facebook post, APEA President Danielle Seltzer wrote that she felt “a great sense of sorrow,” over recent events.
“This week I sincerely feel the weight of everything … we continue to see the turmoil brought about by our government’s failure to truly support communities across the Commonwealth through the COVID-19 pandemic,” Seltzer wrote. “Once again, I reject the false dichotomy of ‘teachers vs. families.’ Those who look at things in such polarizing terms are doomed to ignore the complexities and vulnerabilities of the human condition.”
At the October 22 meeting, the school committee received 47 pages of public comments, many expressing disappointment over the pending schools closure.
“I am so disappointed by the recent news … My child needs to go to school. I am deeply concerned about the consequences of lack of face-to-face school: No socialization, dependence on the internet, mental issues, displacement of healthy family dynamics, overwhelmed parents who also work, delay in learning. You have a public mandate and you need to fulfill it,” wrote parent Madalina Akli. “I want at least two days per week of face-to-face school. I want to sign a liability to release (the) school’s responsibility. Those who want on-line, they can continue, but how about others?”
One letter was signed by more than 80 people, including parents of children at Wildwood, Fort River, and Crocker Farm Elementary Schools, Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Regional High School.
“Decisions have been made over the past three months that have deeply impacted our students and families …. without direct parent or caregiver representation,” stated Laura Druacker, Bridget Hynes, Allecia Reid, Sanjay Arwade, and James Harold, among others.
The decision about whether to close schools should rest with the Amherst Health Director as a “third party,” following consultation with school staff, parents, pediatricians, social workers and others, the parents wrote, adding that such meetings should be “public and transparent.”
As of October 22, the Town of Amherst’s COVID-19 website showed 19 “active” cases, with a total of 272 since the pandemic began.
“To be clear, there has not been a significant uptick in cases in Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, or Shutesbury, nor have we seen UMass cases affect our numbers much locally. However, there has been a significant enough increase in cases in Hampden and Hampshire counties, outside our four towns, that it has pushed the metric over the 28 new cases per week level,” Morris wrote on October 20.
There have been 153 cases in the UMass-Amherst community since August 5, most of those among off-campus students. Meanwhile, UMass-Amherst announced on October 23 that it will invite up to 60 percent of the normal undergraduate population back to campus for the spring semester, beginning February 1.
At an October 20 school committee meeting, Morris said the district’s enrollment has fallen from 2,511 students last year, to 2,400 this year, and expressed concerns about the impact on district funding. Morris noted “acute” concerns about the fate of Pelham Elementary School, which now has just 105 children, including 37 from other towns who attend via school choice programs. This is the lowest number of choice students in several years.
“I just have a lot of not-so-great news to share tonight,” Morris said.
School Committee members commented that the individual decisions that families make, including to home school their children or send them to private schools which are operating in-person, have an impact on public school systems.
“If you have means right now, you can buy in-person learning, and we’re not offering it,” said member Peter Demling.
The plan is for Phase 1 to resume on Monday, November 9, if the health metrics are met at that time. The new dates for Phases 2 and 3, in which other grades woud be added, have not been announced.