Amherst COVID-19 Cases Surge Again, Mostly Among UMass Students

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Seeking Good Weather For Open Windows & Outdoor Classes, Public School Officials Mull Calendar Changes

As COVID-19 cases rose significantly in Amherst last week, predominantly among off-campus UMass students, the Amherst Regional School Committee began discussing  possible changes to the 2021-2022 public school calendar. 

There were 103 active COVID-19 cases in Amherst as of Friday, November 13, according to the Town’s website, with a total of 398 cases here since the pandemic began. The UMass-Amherst COVID-19 Dashboard, last updated on the 13th, showed 16 new positive cases for a cumulative total of 300 since early August. That total includes 265 cases among off-campus students, 16 on-campus, and 19 among off-campus staff and faculty. 

The UMass-Amherst community had 105 new cases from Nov. 4 through 11 and case descriptions reveal batches of students testing positive, including symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals. 

Town-wide, Amherst is designated as “yellow,” or moderate-risk in the state Department of Public Health’s weekly municipal COVID-19 risk assessment, with an average daily case incidence of 14.4 per 100,000 people. A related article on rising statewide COVID-19 activity is here

UMass Plans for Up to 8,700 Students On Campus In Spring

 Meanwhile, the Amherst Town Council heard a presentation on Monday from UMass officials about their plans for the spring, which include inviting up to 8,700 students to live on campus, which now has 1,069 residents. (Thousands more UMass students live off-campus in Amherst and surrounding towns.). ”We’ll see how things evolve, but this is the plan at this time,” said John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations.

UMass officials said that up to 20% of dorm rooms could be double-occupancy and will be based on student requests. The university will continue extensive asymptomatic testing and contact tracing, along with isolation, quarantine, social distancing and mask requirements. Students living on and off campus will have to get COVID-19 tests twice a week, and off-campus students will be required to provide their local addresses when registering for classes. UMass will shift from the existing “Community Agreement” setting out standards for behavior during the pandemic to a university-wide policy. It will also promote students staying in small social bubbles, with limited and highly-managed on-campus events and recreation. 

The UMass officials noted that the community has had fewer cases than many state universities, and provided this comparison chart on page 13 here. However, that chart does not include the newest UMass cases. 

Schools Superintendent To Inquire If Other Districts Willing to Shift Schedules

 On Tuesday, amid dwindling hopes that in-person K-12 education can begin soon, Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) Superintendent Michael Morris was asked by the school committee to inquire if other area districts would consider shifting their calendars. The goal would be to provide more school days during warm weather, when windows can be open and classes held outside. Changes could also be made to vacation schedules. 

Morris said that labor agreements based on the existing calendar go into June, but changes could be possible for the 2021-2022 school year. Aligning with other districts would be important, he said, for the scheduling of sports and other activities. Morris warned that requiring children to be in school during the summer could be problematic, and evaluation of school building cooling systems would be necessary. 

However, Morris and the school committee noted the District’s declining  enrollment this year, when it has operated almost entirely remotely. Concerns were raised about possible further loss of families to private schools or homeschooling, and the likelihood of reduced per-pupil state funds.  

“I see the cost of kids being remote continually as very high … we so far have not achieved our goal of maximizing in-person learning,” said School Committee member Peter Demling.  

RSC Chairwoman Allison McDonald said the district’s calendar could be shifted slightly, with school beginning in mid-August. 

Steve Sullivan, a School Committee member from Shutesbury, said families might welcome having some school next summer, as children were without day camp or other activities this past one. “Last summer was a mess for all families,” he said.

Regional COVID-19 Case Numbers Soar Past School District’s Agreed Limit  

McDonald said at Tuesday’s meeting that the RSC has formally asked the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) twice in recent weeks to engage in renegotiation of the regional COVID-19 metrics used to determine whether schools should close. The limit set in the “Memorandum of Understanding” is 28 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. As of late Friday, that figure stood at 123.4 cases per 100,000 people. It is based on a formula combining data from Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties, but weighs Hampshire County more heavily. 

“We will continue with fully remote learning and will monitor the metrics and report on progress next week,” Morris stated in his weekly community update on Friday. 

The RSC was disappointed by the APEA’s rejection of its initial request to renegotiate, McDonald said Tuesday, but still hopes the APEA will agree to new bargaining. She said the RSC is committed to “healing wounds” between the parties, including by a “restorative process,” if necessary. 

McDonald said the RSC has gotten a high volume of emails from “anguished parents” who are pleading with the School Committee and the District to provide in-person school. She noted that three of the four regional towns – Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury – have had just six or fewer COVID-19 cases,

Sullivan said families in his community are getting impatient for in-person school. “Up here, there’s no reason to keep them out,” he said.

A meeting of a Joint Labor Management Safety Committee (JLMSC) including members of the School Committee and the teachers’ union was scheduled for Friday at 4 p.m. School Committee member Benjamin Herrington, who serves on the JLMSC, said the APEA asked to postpone it, but the meeting was already posted.  

McDonald said the JLMSC can discuss the agreed COVID-19 metrics, but lacks the power to bargain regarding them, which would require new negotiations between the RSC and APEA.  

It its most recent statement,on November. 1, the APEA said the existing metrics were arrived at mutually. “The main priority of the APEA is to provide safe conditions for all who enter our schools,” the executive board wrote. “Educators are working harder than ever to re-create the learning opportunities they have honed … we urge that resource allocation continue to support … remote instruction.”

The Special Education Parent Advisory Council is urging new negotiations between the RSC and APEA, Demling said at Tuesday’s meeting. “The main point is that we have dozens of high-needs students who are not getting any benefit from remote learning,” he said. “You’re seeing a lot of struggle, and a lot of regression.” 

A plan to open the school buildings in phases, beginning with homeless children, those with special needs, English language learners and preschool through grades one has stalled due to the region’s rising COVID-19 case rate. About 300 children returned to school buildings on Oct, 15, remaining on-site only until Oct. 23. Additional phases intended to add higher grades have been pushed back, and new target dates are unclear. Morris has said that current trends mean the district likely faces extended closure. 

Despite optimistic news reports about the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine next year, Morris said it probably won’t be prescribed for children immediately, as testing so far has focused solely on adults. As a result, the need for transmission-prevention and reduction measures by the public schools will likely continue.

Concerns were cited at a November 4 School Committee meeting about high remote-learning absentee rates among Latino students. The district is compiling data on remote absenteeism, which the RSC is slated to discuss at its meeting on Tuesday, November 17. The agenda is here.

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