Teachers’ Union Officials & School Committee Meet After Long Impasse In Attempt to Rebuild Working Relationship

Amherst Pelham Education Association Acting President Lamicka Magee was among the union officials who participated in a virtual meeting on Thursday with the Regional School Committee.

Union To Announce Tuesday If It Will Negotiate Again Over Opening Schools During Pandemic  

 The Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) executive board met virtually on Jan. 7, amid a new effort to restore trust between the two parties.  

“There may not be any closure, or any solutions that will take place tomorrow, or answers to some of the pressing questions … it’s just the start of a conversation,” said Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham. who served as moderator. (Amherst Media’s video of the meeting is here.)

The agenda called for discussion on “meeting the educational needs of our students during this pandemic, and how we can safely get students and staff into buildings.” Details about the return of students were not explored.

Communication between the school committee and the union of teachers, paraprofessionals, clerks and school nurses has been minimal in recent months, as district officials pressed for changes to a Sept. 30 agreement on opening school buildings during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) students are learning remotely and have not been in school buildings since last March. After some building renovations, purging of clutter, HVAC improvements and classroom reconfigurations, among other measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission, district officials planned a phased reopening last fall. The plan called for initial return of the district’s youngest children, English language learners and those with special needs, with gradual addition of later grades, but was stalled by regional case numbers rising above the agreed limit. 

The possibility of additional, regular meetings between the APEA and RSC was suggested Thursday by Cunningham, but no future dates were set publicly. 

“We believe it is critical for us to work together and communicate respectfully,” said APEA Acting President Lamicka Magee on Thursday, adding that she hoped the meeting would lead to “a common understanding of what we need to do to serve our students and our families.”  

 
Regional COVID-19 Caseload Now Over 10 Times The Agreed Limit for Opening Amherst Regional Public School Buildings

The existing “Memorandum of Agreement” between the school committee and the union calls for school buildings to close when the region’s COVID-19 cases reach more than 28 per 100,000 people over seven days. As of Jan. 8, the weighted formula’s result (combining data from Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Counties) surged to 298.3 cases per 100,000 people over seven days, more than ten times the agreed limit.

However, some parents and school committee members have cited concerns about extended remote learning. The difficulties include child isolation and mental health issues, lack of daytime supervision on computers for children of working parents, and increased absences among the district’s low-income and minority students. Remote learning is not beneficial or practical for all children, some parents have said, adding that Individualized Education Plan (IEP) terms are not being upheld.  

“For some students, there is a ceiling to what remote learning can provide,” School Committee member Peter Demling said at Thursday’s meeting. 

Two hundred and forty district parents signed a petition filed with the Amherst Town Clerk and the school committee on Dec. 21, calling for an “Open Meeting of the Residents” under the Amherst Home Rule Charter. The petition was drafted by Amherst parent Bill Kaizen, whose Dec. 18 letter to the school committee is here. (Kaizen is an Amherst Indy editor.) Planning for the “community forum” is listed on the school committee’s agenda for its next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 12. (The full agenda is here.) 

“Positive Vibes” Noted, But Meeting Was Not A Negotiation Session 

Magee said many statements in the media have questioned the union’s dedication to students and the community. 

“Educators have worked tirelessly to serve our students remotely,” she said, adding that it is untrue that teachers don’t want to be in school buildings. “We want everyone to be healthy and safe,” she said. 

The APEA has said it will respond to the school committee’s most recent request for new negotiations on Tuesday, following a Monday meeting of its executive board and representative council. 

Thursday’s special meeting between the APEA and RSC did not constitute actual negotiations, School Committee member Peter Demling noted. “It is good to hear the positive vibes here,” he said. “(But) nothing that we’re talking about here is about resolving differences, and the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement).”  

APEA board member Margaret Todd said she was unhappy to receive emails from parents wanting open buildings, who asked staff to attend union meetings “and vote in their favor.” 

“I just feel like this is a huge violation of boundaries,” Todd said, adding that the school committee and administration “really missed the opportunity to stand up for educators.” 

Cunningham, who is assistant superintendent for diversity and human resources, discouraged further discussion of the email issue, stating that parents were not present at Thursday’s meeting to respond. 

(An Amherst Indy article regarding an email sent by 151 parents to teachers and staff in early December is here.)

The attendees were asked about their decision-making process, and RSC Chair Allison McDonald said her committee of volunteers has to consider the well-being of many stakeholders. It has been “exceptionally challenging,” to try and balance their competing needs, McDonald said.

“All of us have been struggling to make choices that we never in a million years thought we’d have to make this year,” added School Committee member Kerry Spitzer.  Spitzer said there is a “whole spectrum of needs,” in the community, and flexibility will be required to “meet the needs of at least the most vulnerable.”

Mangala Jagadeesh of the APEA Board said the meeting was “a first step to repair the relationship between the APEA and the RSC,” and that the media should not be used in an attempt to bully or direct the parties involved. 

School Committee member Ben Herrington, who is also the district’s assistant facilities director, said that for school buildings to reopen, district officials and teachers will need to trust one another. “What we need to step into our schools right now is faith – not blind faith, but informed faith,” he said.  

District To Seek Waiver Of Remote Learning Time Requirement Over Related Class Size Concerns  

Schools Superintendent Michael Morris was given the go-ahead by the RSC on Tuesday (Jan. 5) to request a waiver from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from a new requirement that students receive a minimum of four hours per day of live or “synchronous” instruction. The requirement followed a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote in mid-December, based on growing concerns over childrens’ mental health. 

Morris said the Amherst and Pelham elementary schools are below the minimum, and achieving it would require that children meet virtually in large groups, a model which the district found was not effective for young children. An electronic survey found that the majority of district families -about 70% – believe their children receive enough live instruction, and would like them to remain in smaller groups, Morris said. “Based on the survey data, I feel comfortable applying for a waiver,” he said. 

Although the state minimum for live instruction was adopted out of concern for children’s mental health, Morris said “there is no evidence that there is any magic number,” of hours that would lead to improved well-being. 

Meanwhile, Morris and the RSC discussed that the district is expanding  “remote learning center” capacity. The centers provide adult supervision while students learn remotely on their laptops. By the month’s end, there will be 40 seats in the Amherst Recreation Department’s program, and 20 in the Mark’s Meadow Afterschool Program, both located in the middle school. The district can service 15 students with intensive special needs in a separate program at Amherst Regional High School. 

Statewide Caseload in Public Schools Declines Following Winter Break 

Massachusetts public schools reported 431 new cases of COVID-19, including 178 among students and 253 staff who had some access to school buildings during two weeks from Dec. 24 to Jan. 6. Most schools statewide were closed for part of the time, for winter break. The new total number represents a decline of 518 cases from the prior one-week tally. A related Masslive article is here.

On Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker also announced a new “pooled testing” program for public schools, where 10 nasal swabs will be bundled together for less-expensive monitoring of infection rates. (A related article is here.) Amherst is also among the 134 school districts approved for a rapid symptomatic testing program begun in November.  

Permanent Later Start Time Proposed for Middle & High School

This week, the School Committees endorsed a two-month community engagement process, about the prospect of a permanent later start time for secondary schools.

Morris said the district received a lot of feedback from families and students noting their appreciation of the 9 a.m. start adopted this year for remote learning. Morris said that research is “incredibly conclusive” that later start times for secondary school students contribute to better outcomes, particularly among underserved populations. 

The RSC had considered the change in 2011, but ultimately tabled the matter. Northampton has just recently adopted a later start time for its middle and high school.  

Morris said a later start time for the middle and high school would impact  elementary school schedules due to bus transportation issues. Various scenarios were discussed at Tuesday’s meeting, including that elementary schools could start at 8:15 a.m., and secondary schools at 9:05 a.m.  All district bargaining units would have to be involved in schedule changes, Morris said. 

After December Decline, UMass COVID-19 Caseload Rises

Amherst held its place in the “yellow,” or moderate-risk category in this past week’s state Department of Public Health report, while 27 western Massachusetts cities and towns were deemed high-risk, according to a Western Mass. News article. Those municipalities include Belchertown, Chicopee, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Holyoke, Ludlow, Palmer, South Hadley, Springfield and others.

The DPH report shows an adjusted average daily caseload in Amherst of 20.2 per 100,000 people. 

Town-wide, there were 126 “active” COVID-19 cases in Amherst as of Jan. 8. The Town’s COVID-19 website shows a total of 927 cases here since the pandemic began.

The case numbers among off-campus students at UMass slowed in late November when winter break began, but the UMass COVID-19 Dashboard, last updated on Jan. 8. shows an uptick, including 35 cases tied to testing on Jan. 4. The dashboard shows a cumulative total of 651 cases in the UMass community since early August, including 552 cases among off-campus students, 27 on-campus, and 72 among staff and faculty. 

In the 14 days ending Jan. 5, there were 130 new COVID-19 cases in Amherst, according to DPH. 

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13 thoughts on “Teachers’ Union Officials & School Committee Meet After Long Impasse In Attempt to Rebuild Working Relationship

  1. Vigorous thanks to Marla Goldberg-Jamate for her report on developments within the Amherst Regional schools with regard to distance learning. I learned more from reading her one article than I have been able to get from a month of scouring local news sources, school district announcements and government websites.

    However, I am confused by the statement that the current regional COVID-19 caseload is more than 10 times higher than the limit for opening schools. It is rooted in the stats reported on the ARPS website (http://www.arps.org/news/covid-19-weighted-case-rate) which states that “The weighted case rate per 100,000 residents, as of January 8, 2021 is 298.3.”

    I don’t understand where this number is coming from. According to my own calculations based on weekly statistics reported by the state, the actual weighted average COVID-19 incidence rate per 100,000 is about 35.8 and the weighted average positivity percentage is 5.1%. These numbers are still significantly greater than the thresholds for re-opening the schools of 28.0 and 2.5%, but nowhere near 10 times higher.

    If anyone wants to see my calculation, I posted a spreadsheet at https://1drv.ms/x/s!AstKRV4uhr4npB8dg3lrqpi1-iaZ?e=DrF15o

  2. Hi Jeff: I think that rates per 100,000 pop that you are looking at may actually be the daily rates, not the weekly rates. The NY Times changed their rates from weekly to daily a few months ago, and at first I found it confusing myself.
    I second your sentiments that Marla Goldberg-Jamate has done an excellent job with her reporting on the schools. Thank you, Marla, and thank you, Amherst Indy!

  3. Hi Jeff,
    Here’s a chart showing the weekly weighted average of cases per 100,000, for the ARPS Region:
    https://joshuanugent.shinyapps.io/seventyfive/?fbclid=IwAR1bEq1J9j6hxahAlNtlJ41hvmyfEQ7f_h-V5AFFnhDSw1Odm6jOxBdjD7k

    The weekly average is based on 7 x the daily average. The spreadsheet you shared shows the daily average of cases.
    The MOA between the School Committee and APEA says that the phasing in of in-person school can occur “provided that there are fewer than 28 new cases per week per 100,000 (using a 7-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden counties, with a weighting of .8 for Hampshire County, .1 for Franklin County and .1 for Hampden County, and the PCR positive test rate (using a 14-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden, with a weighting of .8 for Hampshire County, .1 for Franklin County and .1 for Hampden County, is less than 2.5%.”
    (link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1JxgGpsM__YQD6Oo9xTkGtnXjyHL6JGWv/view)

  4. Hi Jeff Lee –
    Thanks for reading the article and for your kind comments. Regarding the ARPS metrics – my understanding of the MOA formula is that it sets a limit of 28 cases per 100,000 people over a 7-day (rolling average) period, rather than 28 cases per 100,000 people per single day. A daily incidence rate of 35.8 cases, for example, would yield a weekly rate of 250.6 cases per 100,000 people – however the district uses a rolling rather than a strict average in its calculations, which I think may explain why the current ARPS number (298.3 cases per 100,000) is higher than the result of multiplying 35.8*7.
    For those who are interested, this is from page 8 of the MOA (a link to the full MOA document is in the article above):
    “Provided there are fewer than 28 new cases per week per
    100,000 (using a 7-day rolling average) in Hampshire, Franklin and
    Hampden counties, with a weighting of .8 for Hampshire County, .1 for
    Franklin County and .1 for Hampden County …”
    Again, thanks, and I welcome your further thoughts regarding this, as I am certainly no mathematician! Regards –

  5. Hi Marla. Thanks for the explanation. It explains how the ARPS number was reached, but it seems like an odd way to express the metric. As I now understand it, the schools will not re-open until there are fewer than a weighted average of roughly 4 new local cases per day. This number seems like quite a difficult goal to achieve and is comparatively much stricter than the alternative metric of a 2.5% 14-day average positivity rate. I believe in erring on the side of caution, but I can also understand why the district is worried that it will be many months before the schools are realistically able to meet the agreed upon measures.

  6. Did somebody shout “mathematician!”?

    The idea is to assess the expected number of infectious individuals in a community at any given time. One could start with the daily number of positive COVID tests, but since that number fluctuates, a more robust number is the weekly rolling average.

    If one assumes that the interval an individual remains infectious is the recommended period for quarantine (roughly 2 weeks), then multiplying the weekly rolling average by 2 gives a proxy for the expected number of infectious individuals (in fact, it gives a lower bound, since there may be more asymptomatic-but-infectious COVID cases which are not being detected by tests).

    What this means is that the ARPS/APEA MOA considers having at least 56 COVID-infected individuals in a population of 100,000 — that is, a fraction greater than 1 out of 1786 — translates into an “acceptable risk” for resuming in-person-learning. In other words, given the ARPS staff and student population, expecting a few (or more) COVID-infectious individuals in the schools at any time was considered acceptable.

    A lot of people have been “wondering” how the ARPS and APEA arrived at this level of acceptable risk. There are well-established methods for assessing risk — indeed, that’s the business of professional actuaries in the insurance industry, which is no stranger to this valley — but given the complexity of not only the epidemiology, but also the regulatory environment, it would be an understatement to say that the insurance industry is having a very, very hard time figuring that out.

    Were I to now attempt a back-of-the-envelope calculation here, the risk that one of my dear readers might smash another bottle of beer — can you guess the brand?! — in my driveway would be too high for me to accept, so let me instead invite readers to perform the calculations themselves, and report back to us soon….

  7. Rob I can answer how apea and arps got to 28 cases – arps proposed 56 ( the numbers from the state at the time) and apea wanted zero. It was not scientific.

  8. Your shedding light on a rather obtuse metric helps, Rob Kusner. At least we can better relate the number to a risk factor.

    Is it the right metric upon which to base re-opening the schools? I honestly don’t know, but have to wonder – What would Fauci do?

  9. Thanks, Jeff — I agree that “What would Fauci do?” replaces a similar slogan I’ve seen on billboards (though now, we’re not only discussing ethics, but also the science and math of epidemiology and risk assessment; he and I have also privately discussed how the already-infected and already-vacciniated fractions might figure into any rational policy).

    And thanks, Laura, for the historical remark: if that’s all that went into the number — which also happens to be the lowest fraction The New York Times’ COVID maps had indicated (by pale yellow) last spring and summer — then I understand your last sentence (but one hopes the number can be better grounded in science and math and ethics).

  10. Sorry, Tracy, I missed your earlier comments in this thread. I now understand how the metric is calculated, and the Joshua Nugent page you pointed out makes it even clearer. Thanks.

  11. Here’s an early (and possibly no-longer-current) assessment by a Cambridge University statistician of the overall mortality risk posed by COVID 19 as a function of age:

    https://medium.com/wintoncentre/how-much-normal-risk-does-covid-represent-4539118e1196

    (And here’s an interesting — if only tangentially-related — perspective

    https://medium.com/asian-voices-matter/who-touched-my-hair-c3691123fd35

    about some of the important-but-unheralded people involved in the early effort to contain
    the COVID 19 pandemic in China….)

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