Teachers’ Union, School Committee Commit To “Opportunities For In Person Learning”

Empty classroom at Wildwood School. Photo: Toni Cunningham

Details Of Any Return to School Buildings In February Still Unknown 

After months of friction over district-wide remote learning, the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) and the Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) stated jointly this week that they are committed to providing “opportunities for in-person learning’ starting next month. 

“We support collaborative efforts to accomplish this, and we also stress our intent to honor and respect the decisions of individual staff regarding remote or in-person instruction,” the APEA and RSC stated on Wednesday. 

However, the statement offered no information as to the date in-person learning would start, which students would be eligible to return, or the number of days per week buildings would be open. The number of teachers who are willing to return to school buildings voluntarily is still being determined, it said. 

“The District and APEA have begun work together on a survey of staff, to understand their ability and capacity to return to in-person instruction,” the union and school committee wrote, adding that families will also be surveyed.

Meanwhile, an “Open Meeting of the Residents” to discuss distance learning and school reopening issues is set for Thursday,  February 4, following a petition filed by 240 residents under a provision of the Amherst Home Rule Charter. Topics will include the district’s distance learning model and its impact on students, health and safety plans, phasing of in-person learning, and the existing “Memorandum of Agreement” between the APEA and RSC.

Further information about the virtual meeting, including how to access it, are here

Meanwhile, the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported Thursday that statewide, 624 students and 345 school staff who had building access tested positive for COVID-19 between January. 21 and 27, for a combined total of 969 cases. The total increased by about 35 cases from the prior week. (A related article is here.)  

Teachers in K-12 systems are listed midway through Phase 2 of the state’s vaccination timeline. Phase 2, set to begin in February, prioritizes people aged 75 and above, followed by those 65 and over; and then individuals with two or more conditions which could make them vulnerable to severe COVID-19 illness. Teachers follow those with two or more underlying health problems.

Most Amherst Regional Public School (ARPS) children have attended school entirely remotely since last March. The agreement between the APEA and RSC on reopening standards signed in late September states that schools will close when the weighted regional COVID-19 caseload rises above 28 cases per 100,000 people over 7 days.  As of January. 19, that number was at 294.5 cases per 100,000 people. 

The APEA has declined to renegotiate the agreement, although union leaders said recently that the APEA had voted to explore “a limited return to in-person learning.” Some teachers of preschool and intensive-needs students want to resume in-person teaching, according to the APEA. 

The Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees voted on January. 12 for a return to in-person learning starting in February for “as many children as possible,” prioritizing the district’s higher needs students.”

However, the APEA quickly raised objections to the motion, which came soon after the first informal meeting after a long impasse over the COVID-19 opening standards. APEA board members said the motion’s language led to concerns that children outside of preschool and higher-needs categories would be invited back too quickly. 

Although APEA leaders raised doubts and questions at the time about collaboration with the D istrict, the new statement indicates that communication between the parties is underway.

“We know that there is significant community interest in … providing opportunities for in-person learning this year, and we would like to share our tentative agreements,” the union and school committee wrote. 

Both the APEA and RSC are committed to the health and safety measures outlined in the initial agreement, and to ensuring those protocols are “part of any agreement or side letter on a voluntary return to in-person instruction.” 

The schools have been remote since the start  of the fall term  on September 16, although about 300 children in priority groups, including preschool through grades one, and those in special education programs, returned to buildings on October 17.  Buildings closed again on October 26 because COVID-19 case numbers rose above the agreed limit, and have remained above it ever since. 

The next school committee meeting is set for Feb. 2. An agenda is here.

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