Amherst Regional Schools Plan To Open Buildings For Higher Needs, Preschool Children In February

Photo: Amherst Media

Union States That It May Pursue An Unfair Labor Practice Charge

Editor’s Note: This article was updated at 7:20 p.m. on Jan. 13, to include a statement released by the Amherst Pelham Education Association, expressing shock over the Amherst Regional School Committee’s plan.

The Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees voted on Tuesday (Jan. 12) in favor of returning to in-person learning for “as many children as possible,” while “prioritizing the district’s higher needs students.”

The school committee actions follow the Amherst Pelham Education Association’s (APEA) announcement on Monday, that its representative council voted to explore “a limited return to in-person learning.” Certain teachers who work with preschool and intensive-needs students wish to resume in-person teaching, the union said in a press release.

The Regional School Committee (RSC) and APEA have recently begun meeting informally after a long stalemate over reopening, although the APEA said Monday that it does not have a mandate from its membership to renegotiate an existing “Memorandum of Agreement” (MOA) with the district. 

On Wednesday afternoon, the APEA Executive Committee posted a letter to members of the union on Facebook. “We were as shocked as you probably were to hear of the School Committee’s motion and vote last night,” the letter states. “We will be reaching out to MTA (Massachusetts Teachers Association) for clarification, but as of now, we are seeing this as a direct violation of our MOA, and an end run around any fruitful work with the district. We may need to file an Unfair Labor Practice Charge.”

At the school committee meeting, RSC Chair Allison McDonald expressed disappointment over the union’s decision not to renegotiate the MOA, but said she appreciated its proposal to let some teachers to step forward voluntarily. “It’s a creative solution around what’s become sort of an intractable situation,” McDonald said.  

The Amherst School Committee on Monday night also set a tentative date of Jan. 28 for an “Open Meeting of the Residents,” about the school reopening issue. Two-hundred forty residents signed a petition calling for the meeting under a provision of the Amherst Home Rule Charter.

The existing agreement between the RSC and the APEA prompts school closures when the weighted, regional COVID-19 caseload exceeds 28 cases per week per 100,000 people, based on a rolling average. The caseload number now stands at 369.9 per 100,000 people, according to the Amherst Regional Public Schools website – about 13 times higher than the agreed limit.

With a few abstentions, the school committees voted to direct Superintendent Michael Morris to “develop and implement a plan for the return of in-person learning, with staff who voluntarily choose in-person instruction,” within safety guidelines set by public health officials. The committees also said Morris should work closely with the APEA leadership and student families “to safely implement this plan.” 

The motion was presented by School Committee member Peter Demling, who serves on the Special Education Parent Advisory Council. Demling has stressed numerous times in recent months that some children with special needs can’t be adequately or appropriately served by remote teaching. 

“We know we have a clear and urgent need to provide for in-person learning for a number of students,” Demling said, adding that there are about five months left of the school year. “For those that have gotten little or nothing from remote learning, every day that goes by is important,” he said.

The APEA did not specify how many teachers are willing to return to buildings, and it is unknown whether the shift will cause gaps in the existing district-wide remote learning program, or how such gaps would be filled. 

Some school committee members also raised concerns about the RSC move and how it will impact the informal talks which have just gotten underway with the APEA. 

The RSC motion for February reopening prioritizing higher-needs students  passed with six “yes” votes, while two abstentions came from Kerry Spitzer of Amherst and Magaret Stancer of Pelham. 

“What will we do if half of the middle school teachers will come back, and half not?” Stancer asked, adding that the plan’s implementation could be messy. “We may be putting a huge load onto the superintendent when he already has a lot on his plate,” she said. 

The APEA warned union members on Wednesday that “we don’t know what protections will be in place if you are volunteering to teach in-person right now.” The Executive Committee stated that it will hold a special all-member meeting on Saturday, Jan. 16 at 11 a.m.

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2 thoughts on “Amherst Regional Schools Plan To Open Buildings For Higher Needs, Preschool Children In February

  1. A very distinguished mathematician, John H. Conway, who died last spring of COVID19, once quipped that the most important set is the empty set: that applies here, in so many ways (think about it)….

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