School Committee, Teachers’ Union At Impasse Over Covid-19 Closures



Union President Danielle Seltzer Has Resigned

Editor’s note: On Oct. 31, after this article was published, the Amherst Pelham Education Association released a new statement on social media about its reasons for refusing additional contractual negotiations, which is here.

No negotiations took place this week between the Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) about the numbeer of area COVID-19 cases that should require schools to close. 

Meanwhile, APEA President Danielle Seltzer, who was in the post for just a few months, confirmed on Friday October 30 that she has resigned. Seltzer, who wouldn’t comment on her reason for stepping down, said the union bylaws stipulate that the vice president, who is now Karin Baker, will serve as interim president.  As of publication time, Baker and other APEA executive board members had not returned calls or emails from the Amherst Indy. 

The union informed the school committee by email on Monday that it did not wish to resume discussions about the existing Memorandum of Agreement, according to Regional School Committee (RSC) Chairwoman Allison McDonald. The APEA was not a participant in RSC executive sessions this week to discuss collective bargaining strategy. “The APEA was not part of our meetings, and there was no negotiation,” McDonald stated in an email. The RSC has not yet responded publicly to the APEA’s refusal, but expects to early next week, McDonald said.

The RSC first asked to renegotiate the agreement with the union on October 23. McDonald’s letter making the request, and the APEA’s initial response, are here.

Although the U.S. had its worst recorded week for new COVID-19 infections last week, the Town of Amherst slid into the state Department of Public Health’s (DPH) green or lower risk category, with an average daily case level of 2.8 per 100,000 people. A surge in cases primarily among off-campus UMass-Amherst students had pushed Amherst into the red or high-risk zone earlier this month. 

There have been 171 cases in the UMass-Amherst community since August 5, most of those among off-campus students. The community continues to battle the virus, and UMass COVID-19 case descriptions show that on October 28, five off-campus students, three on-campus students, and a staff member tested positive.  UMass announced October 23 that it is inviting about 60 percent of undergraduates to campus for the spring semester which starts February 1. 

Statewide COVID-19 levels are still surging, with 121 communities now deemed high risk.  (The DPH’s full report is here.)  Northampton is categorized as green, while Belchertown, South Hadley, Easthampton, Southampton and Ludlow are yellow or moderate risk. Granby, Holyoke, Chicopee, Springfield, Palmer, Agawam and Westfield are all designated red or high-risk. 

Amherst had 18 “active” COVID-19 cases as of October 30, according to the town’s COVID-19 website, with a total of 287 cases since the pandemic began.

The District’s public schools have been remote since opening on September 16, with about 300 students in priority groups returning to buildings from October 15 to 23. During that time, regional COVID-19 cases pushed above the level agreed to by the APEA and the district, prompting buildings to close for two weeks beginning October 26. 

The agreed formula, which the RSC hopes to renegotiate, 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 29 showed 45.2 positive cases per 100,000 people over seven days. 

It is unclear whether the district’s school buildings will be able reopen November 9 for English language learners, children in preschool through grade 1, the homeless, and students in special education programs. 

“We will monitor the metrics and report on progress next week,” wrote Schools Superintendent Michael Morris in his weekly update on Oct. 30. The dates for additional groups of students to return to buildings will also be determined by the case numbers. 

As of publication time on Oct. 30, the APEA had not released a public statement about its refusal to restart negotiations. However, public Facebook posts referred to a call on Monday (October 26) in which 100 members participated, and a majority voted to oppose new negotiations, with some dissenters.

In a statement on Ocober. 25, the APEA expressed shock over the RSC’s renegotiation request, stating that it had agreed to ongoing conversation, and that a Joint Labor Management Safety Committee was created to address concerns and potential revisions to the existing agreement. The APEA asked for “full transparency and completely open bargaining,” and said it would like to host a “town hall” meeting with district officials to address community concerns.   

In the last few weeks, State Education Commission Jeffrey Riley told news outlets including WBUR that public schools have not been a major source of transmission. He claimed that public health officials are planning to update metrics measuring community transmission risk, so that spikes at colleges don’t push towns into the red zone and affect decisions about public school closures. 

The State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) guidance on learning models generally suggests that districts go all-remote when average daily cases are greater than 8 per 100,000 people. (A graphic displaying the DESE guidance is here.)

A letter to the school committee, signed by more than 80 parents last week, called for decisions about closing schools to be made by the Amherst Health Director as a “third party.” The group said the health director should consult with school staff, parents, pediatricians, and social workers, at meetings that are “public and transparent.” 

A school committee meeting is set for November 4 at 6:30 p.m. The agenda is here.

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6 thoughts on “School Committee, Teachers’ Union At Impasse Over Covid-19 Closures

  1. Marla, did you read the letter from the APEA that you linked to in the 3rd paragraph?

    No where in your piece is any of the frankly disappointing and upsetting content of that letter referenced or included in your article, relative to the school board’s failures in the process of negotiation around school safety and health during COVID. The article reads like more school committee’s PR spin. I guess I would expect that from the gazette, but I hope for better from the Indy.

    I wonder if you might include or quote some or any of the hard-to-refute perspective of the teachers and educators that is so clearly shared in the APEA letter?

    The APEA letter makes it clear that much or most of the fault for the negotiations being ended in the first place lies with the school committee, even though the school committee is trying to lay blame on the union for ending negotiations.

    It also makes clear that there is a process set up by the MOU to discuss any changes to the metrics, a process that the school committee has ignored and failed to engage with, while they have instead opted for a grandstanding approach.

    Have you watched any of the school committee meetings (the public ones at least)? I’m sure elected members are doing the best they can given an incredibly tough situation addressing COVID. However, it’s clear from reading the APEA letter that teacher’s union reps and board have been working together at shall we say higher level of organizing, strategy, communication and outreach to address the COVID crisis, and understandably so, given that it is their lives and health on the line, and those of their families, along with those of their students and students’ families.

  2. Eric – as a parent I have zero interest in the back and forth blame game that has been happening on both sides but most recently on display in the APEA letter. I too want everyone to be safe. The mou has a lot of important safety details that I appreciate. It then has metrics and rules around those metrics that are not based in science and most importantly do not allow for flexibility in the understanding of the virus. Without updating no K,1, or vulnerable children will be in school for longer than a few weeks and the others will not see the inside of the building all year. Parents recognized the role of the joint committee as laid out in the APEA letter and suggest that that committee include the health director, parent rep, and be open and public. If other public schools in our state and neighboring states can open safely then we should be able to do it as well. While I feel the district, SC and APEA are all to blame for getting us to this place I would prefer to focus on putting pressure on them to put the past behind us and move forward. The APEA vote does not give me hope. Even so I must hope we can make some progress with the joint committee to get us on a path that supports safe in person school when possible.

  3. I think it is important to clarify this point “… in which 100 members participated, and a majority voted to oppose new negotiations, with some dissenters.” I believe only the APEA executive committee voted, not all 100 members in attendance. In fact, I believe there was a motion to allow all members in the meeting to vote that was not passed. It would be great to have this verified by an APEA member and since these meetings have been closed door it is important that our media outlets are specific and accurate and don’t contribute to a growing false narrative about teachers and parents being pitted against each other. We all want what’s best for our kids and educators and a safe return to school. Lack of transparency and blurry details are not helping.
    Thank you Laura for continuing to stress that we need to focus on moving forward.

  4. Agree with Laura above — I have no interest in the blame game as to whose ‘fault’ it is that parents are upset. It seems to me that the School Committee and the APEA have a joint responsibility to the children, families, and teachers of the district to provide the best plan to educate our children in the safest way possible. By safe, this should mean both limiting exposure to Covid, but also to meeting the educational and mental health needs of our children and families. There are no doubt many ways to meet this goal and devise a plan, and it is an incredibly difficult problem to handle, but I cannot understand why the leadership would not be continuing to meet and refine the standards as this epidemic continually changes.
    If the avenue for discussion is the JLMSC, then I would welcome hearing from them about ideas to improve this plan. If the JLMSC does not have the power to change the rules or standards (it seems the metrics are written into the MOA itself) then are there other avenues where the school committee and APEA are communicating?
    I would also make another plea for revisiting the closing metric – I understand that the Committee and APEA chose 28 because they wanted it to be ‘low’. Choosing one number, though, wherever it is, takes all decision making, nuance, and context out of the process. If the numbers come down and stall at 30-31 cases, will we still keep the schools closed? What if we come down to 27 for a few days, and then up to 32 for a few days – will we continually open and close? The numbers have gone up recently, but we have to plan ahead for when they do come down, and in order to do so, really need our leadership to be continuing to communicate.

  5. Just so people know, the APEA Representative Council voted, not just the Executive Committee. This council elected to represent the membership. The meeting consisted of Rep Council members, membership and interested non-members. Only the Rep Council voted. That is the structure of the union.

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