School Committee Plan To Open Buildings In February Draws Objections From Teachers’ Union

Photo: Interdisciplinary Association For Population Health Studies

Questions Raised About Whether Return Will Be Limited to Preschool & Higher-Needs Students

The Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees voted this week for a return to in-person learning starting in February for “as many children as possible,” prioritizing the District’s “higher needs students.”

However, it was unclear by the week’s end how many teachers and children might be part of that return, and numerous details have yet to be presented. 

The Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) quickly raised objections to the school committees’ motion, which came just a few days after the first informal talk between the parties after a long stalemate over COVID-19 opening standards. Harsh words were stated at a virtual special meeting on Jan. 14 of the APEA Executive Board and the Regional School Committee (RSC.)  An Amherst Media video is here.

“The process has become broken from the school committee’s end,” said APEA President Lamicka Magee. “They have political incentives that teachers do not have, people in power need to recognize their power, white supremacy culture, (and) sense of urgency,” Magee said. 

APEA board members said the motion’s language opens the possibility that children outside of the preschool and higher-needs categories will be invited back too swiftly. The union represents teachers, paraprofessionals, clerks and school nurses.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported Thursday that statewide, 523 students and 407 school staff who had building access tested positive for COVID-19 between Jan. 7 and 13. The combined total of 930 cases is more than double the prior week’s tally of 431. (A related article is here.)

Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) Superintendent Michael Morris announced at Tuesday’s school committee meeting that some additional custodial staff represented by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees would be furloughed, although he didn’t specify a number of affected employees or the furlough’s length. 

APEA board members said they felt blindsided by the school committee’s motion to open building doors, and the email which went to district employees the next day, calling the actions a breach of trust. 

“I felt pretty great disappointment when the motion passed … for the superintendent to push all students back in, in February,” said APEA Board member Kristin Rhodes. “I felt like we just lost what we were building.” 

RSC Chair Allison McDonald said she wanted to clarify the RSC’s intent. “The motion does not actually say ‘all students in February,’” McDonald said, adding that instead, it plans reopening “starting” in February and the RSC is asking the APEA “to help define what that (return) looks like.” 

The school committee motion followed APEA’s announcement on Monday that it does not have a mandate from members to renegotiate an existing “Memorandum of Agreement” (MOA) with the district. Instead, the APEA said  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 stated. 

APEA Vice President Karin Baker said that the union, although not willing to renegotiate the MOA, is willing to negotiate via two “side letters” to it. “We wanted to follow a process, and thought it was understood,” Baker said at Thursday’s special meeting. 

The RSC has received a large volume of public comment over the last few months, from parents who maintain their children are not benefitting from remote learning, or are struggling and regressing as a result. Public comments submitted for the January 12 meeting are here. A tentative date of January 28 has been set by the Amherst School Committee 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.

McDonald said Thursday that the community has been waiting since October for a plan to re-open schools. “Our community does not have the same kind of patience level at this point for a drawn-out, really in-depth detailed collaboration,” she said. McDonald expressed concern about families leaving ARPS for private schools that are operating in person, and the district’s future generally, “if we can’t work a little more quickly than we have been.” 

Magee said she understands the urgency, but return should not come at the cost of the community’s health and safety.

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 stood at 342.6 per 100,000 people on January 14, according to the Amherst Regional Public Schools website – about 12 times higher than the agreed limit.

With a few abstentions, the school committees voted to direct 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 raised concerns on Tuesday about how the RSC motion would 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. 

The next school committee meeting will be on Thursday, Jan. 21. An agenda is here.

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6 thoughts on “School Committee Plan To Open Buildings In February Draws Objections From Teachers’ Union

  1. I am perplexed that so many discussions on reopening (not just here in Amherst but across the nation) discuss the return to in-person schooling without reference to the vaccine rollout. It looks like teachers in MA will be getting their vaccines in FEB or early MAR. Instead of demonizing teachers for their concerns about the safety of reopening, or parents for their desire to get their kids back into school, we could either move teachers and staff up in the vaccine queue or delay school openings until teachers and staff have been vaccinated. Of course this doesn’t address the potential for spread among children (and to their possibly unvaccinated families) and it doesn’t consider the new risks posed by a new, highly infections coronavirus variant (https://www.sciencenews.org/article/coronavirus-uk-variant-more-contagious-us-dominant-strain) that may soon become the dominant strain in the US. But perhaps it offers a way of looking at the challenge we face in terms that are a little bit less adversarial.

  2. Thank you, Art. I live in Amherst and teach at Amherst Regional Middle School and have also been wondering at the School Committee’s rush to get students and staff into schools in February, without weighing in factors like vaccinations and the newly-proposed pool testing by the state. These are positive, new developments. It would have been nice if the School Committee had continued collaborative discussions with the APEA moving towards smart timing for in-person learning. The Worchester School Superindendent wants all staff vaccinated before hybrid learning begins. Seems like a wise move for many stakeholders.
    https://www.masslive.com/worcester/2021/01/worcester-public-schools-superintendent-wants-all-employees-vaccinated-before-hybrid-learning-district-considering-whether-to-take-part-in-pool-testing-program.html

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