As Amherst’s Public Schools Stay Remote, Increase In “Distance Learning Center” Capacity Is Planned

Amherst Regional Middle School. Photo: Amherst Public Schools

Teachers’ Union To Announce If It Will Renegotiate Opening Requirements After January 11 Meeting

Planning is underway to expand available seats in The Amherst Schools’ K-12 “distance learning centers,” which are now operating at Amherst Regional Middle School, by adding another 20 to 24 seats for students to learn remotely with adult supervision. Based upon the results of a State inspection this coming week, the new slots would be available later this month, according to Regional School Committee (RSC)  Chairwoman Allison McDonald.  

Meanwhile, the Amherst-Pelham Education Association (APEA) has said it will discuss whether to return to the negotiating table to reconsider standards for reopening school buildings with the Regional School Committee (RSC.) 

The Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) have been almost fully remote since last March, as debate continues about the overall risk of COVID-19 transmission within schools. Statewide, a total of 949 staff and students in Massachusetts schools that are either in-person or hybrid  tested positive for the coronavirus for the week ended Dec. 23, the Boston Herald reported, a decline from the prior week’s all-time high case count of 1,009.

ARPS sent a survey to Amherst elementary school families on December 29, seeking input about remote instruction and about whether to continue focusing on small-group learning, or shift to larger groups in order to provide more live instruction time. The survey, which ends January 5, can be seen here

Teachers Statewide Scheduled for Vaccination From February Through April
Under the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s estimated vaccine distribution timeline initially published in December, K-12 teachers are to be offered their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in “Phase 2,” from February to April, following health care workers and residents in long-term and group care settings. (A related article is here.) However, the vaccines must be administered in two doses, either 21 or 28 days apart, depending on the manufacturer, potentially delaying full vaccination for some teachers at least until May. There are also uncertainties about vaccine distribution speed. As of December 31, about 285,000 vaccine doses were shipped to Massachusetts, but just 79,000 of those were administered, according to the state vaccination dashboard

Meanwhile, a vaccine has not yet been approved for use in children under age 16. Pfizer’s vaccine is  authorized for ages 16 and up, while Moderna’s vaccine is  for ages 18 and up, according to Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Both pharmaceutical companies have begun clinical trials on younger children.

Regional COVID-19 Caseload Still Eight Times Higher Than District’s Agreed Limit for Opening Schools
ARPS and the teachers’ union agreed in a September 30 “Memorandum of Understanding” that the District’s instruction would not be in person if the regional caseload climbed above 28 per 100,000 people. While some children were able to return to in-person learning briefly in October, the regional case threshold was quickly exceeded and schools closed. As of December 30, the weighted formula combining data from Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Counties, showed 229.8 cases per 100,000 people over seven days, more than eight times the agreed number. 

Amid growing frustration among some ARPS parents about the continued lack of in-person teaching, a petition with 240 signatures seeking an Open Meeting of the Residents was filed with the Town Clerk’s Office and submitted to the RSC on Dec. 21. (A related Daily Hampshire Gazette article is here.)  The RSC has said it will discuss the format and schedule of the Open Meeting when it meets on January 12.

The two existing distance learning centers at the Middle School, with capacity for 20 students each, are sponsored and staffed by Amherst Leisure Services and the Marks Meadow Childcare Program, with the district providing “in-kind facilities” only. Spots have been filled based on need. Another small site for students with intensive special needs is operating inside Amherst Regional High School.  McDonald told the Amherst Indy about the possible new general slots in an email exchange this week. 

The RSC asked the APEA to agree to renegotiate the school closure formula, in communications on October. 23 and November 2. On December 17, the APEA contacted the RSC, offering to begin “more frequent direct communication,” and emphasizing a “shared interest in doing what is best for our students.” McDonald responded on December 23, proposing a meeting to establish ground rules for negotiations for January 7, 12 or 14. She noted that the RSC “would welcome beginning with a restorative process,” and asked the APEA to reply by January 5. 

On December 30, the APEA posted a press release to Facebook stating that its representative council and executive board will meet January 11. “Following that discussion, open to all APEA members, we will respond to the School Committee and inform the community by January 12 about how our membership would like us to move forward,” the APEA stated. 

The next school committee meeting is set for this coming Tuesday, January 5. An agenda is here

There Are 101 Active Cases in Amherst
Amherst remains “yellow,” or moderate-risk in this past week’s DPH report, while 

21 western Massachusetts cities and towns were deemed high-risk, including Chicope,  Granby, Hadley, Holyoke, Palmer, South Hadley, Springfield, Ware, and West Springfield, among others. (See related article here.) The DPH report shows an adjusted average daily caseload in Amherst of 19.7 per 100,000 people. 

Town-wide, there were 101 “active” COVID-19 cases in Amherst as of December 31. The Town’s COVID-19 website shows a total of 842 cases town-wide since the pandemic began.

The majority of Amherst’s COVID-19 cases have been among off-campus UMass students, although the UMass winter intersession began on November 21 and will last until January 31. The UMass COVID-19 Dashboard, last updated on December 23, showed a cumulative total of 544 cases since early August. That total includes 473 cases among off-campus students, 27 on-campus, and 44 among staff and faculty. 

In the 14 days ending December 29, there were 111 new cases in Amherst, according to the state Department of Public Health’s weekly municipal COVID-19 risk assessment, 

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