Questions Arise About Parents Contacting Teachers Directly Over COVID-19 School Closures
As a stalemate drags on between the Regional School Committee and the union that represents teachers and paraeducators, a group of 151 parents calling themselves “Parents & Guardians for ARPS Safe Reopening” have emailed a letter to teachers and staff, urging them to “immediately reach out to their APEA [Amherst Pelham Education Association] leadership and request that they begin to renegotiate the current Memorandum Of Agreement (MOA) with the School Committee.”
The letter, circulated by Stephanie Hockman, a Pelham parent of two high school students, asks that “the MOA be re-opened for negotiation for mitigating inequity, for the School District’s financial viability, and for our students.”
“Amherst and Pelham are two of only three Hampshire County towns that have been fully remote since Oct. 26th. Plainfield is the third,” wrote Hockman in the December 4th letter. Data on Hampshire County schools, their COVID-19 case numbers, and whether they were open for in-person or remote learning, was circulated with the letter. Three of the 18 districts reportedly had positive cases in the past week: Hadley (2), Granby (1), and Williamsburg (1).
Following receipt of Hockman’s letter, a teacher at the Amherst Regional Middle School sent an email to Superintendent Michael Morris asking that he make clear to all district staff that communication from parents using school email — to teachers other than their own children’s — is not permitted without administration approval. Furthermore, it said that if administrators allow this type of communication, it could be perceived as interfering with members’ right to collectively bargain directly with their employer, and to have a harassment-free workplace. A copy of this email was obtained by the Amherst Indy.
In reply to questions from the Indy, Morris stated that parents were not given teacher email addresses by any district administrators. (Numerous staff email addresses can be found on school websites.) Request for comment from the email’s author, and from APEA president Lamicka Magee, were unreturned at publication time. However, the APEA issued a press release on Wednesday citing several terms of the MOA that they say still need to be met for a safe return to in-person schooling. These included reports on air quality testing of educational spaces, and a plan for fitting all in-person students into the schools with six feet distancing. The lack of COVID testing in Amherst, prior to UMass’ recent announcement, was also cited.
Tensions between some parents, school leaders and the APEA have been high of late, as COVID numbers have continued to exceed the metric that triggers automatic closure — a weighted 7-day average of 28 cases per 100,000 — and the schools remain fully remote for the vast majority. (About 53 children either with intensive needs or without home daytime supervision are being served by remote learning centers set up in the middle and high school.) Many parents have availed themselves of the School Committee’s public comment period at meetings, and on social media channels to share their frustrations with elected officials. But negotiations remain stalled, and requests to APEA from the School Committee to return to the negotiating table have reportedly been declined or unreturned.
Asked why he signed onto the Hockman letter, Bill Kaizen a parent of two children at Wildwood Elementary School and an editor for the Amherst Indy, said, “I signed on to the letter because I was hearing from parents and teachers that they didn’t realize that the other public school districts in Western Massachusetts were open, and that, according to health professionals, returning to in-person school is a safe and necessary option for many children. From what I understand, Superintendent Morris is not communicating this information to teachers, nor is he calling them back to the table to renegotiate the MOA. Unfortunately, parents are being left to do the work of the School Committee and Superintendent, and parents seem to be the only ones advocating for the needs of our children.”
At a virtual “Community Chat” with Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Morris was asked by community members what can be done to reopen school. Morris emphasized that the two bargaining agents – the School Committee and the APEA – have to first agree to come back to the negotiating table. When asked by Bockelman if he could just “wave a magic wand and bring school back,” Morris said that he “can’t knowingly break a contract that’s been signed in good faith by both parties.” He urged that parents continue to contact the School Committee. “The more (that) people can communicate their concerns to the critical stakeholders — and I’m one of them — is a good thing,” he said.