Parents Voice Concerns Over Prolonged Remote Learning As Effort Is Launched For Partial School Reopening In March

Wildwood School. Photo: Toni Cunningham

With $1 Million Proposed Cut To Regional Schools Budget, 16.5 Jobs Could Be Lost

The numerous challenges faced by the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS) during the COVID-10 pandemic were brought into focus on Thursday night, during a large and at times emotional virtual gathering. 

At its height, about 170 people attended an “Open Meeting of the Residents,” about the extended closure of the schools. An Amherst Media video is here.

Some speakers said that children are struggling in remote school, while isolation is leading to an increase in behavioral problems and mental health issues, particularly among teenagers. 

“It’s about the worst situation I’ve ever dealt with as a family doctor,” said Dr. Kate Atkinson, one of the first to comment. Atkinson added that her patients from Belchertown, where the schools are operating on a hybrid model, are faring better than those from Amherst. “I don’t have one of my kids in Belchertown going through this,” she said. 

The Belchertown schools are offering students two days per week of in-person learning, with “Group A”  on-site Mondays and Tuesdays, “Group B” on Thursdays and Fridays, and school buildings closed on Wednesdays. That hybrid model, in which children learn remotely on other days, is one that ARPS Superintendent Michael Morris and the Regional School Committee (RSC) had discussed last summer. 

Speakers such as William Kaizen, who led a petition drive seeking Thursday’s meeting, expressed frustration over an agreement between the school committees and the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA), which requires ARPS to close when the seven-day, weighted regional COVID-19 caseload rises above 28 per 100,000 people. 

As of February 4, the caseload figure was at almost 227 per 100,000 people, according to the ARPS website – about eight times higher than the limit set in late September.

Kaizen called the established caseload metric “a fixed and inflexible trigger, which has made it impossible for our children to return for in-person learning.”  He, among others, pressed the school committee for a commitment to open in-person for all students in the fall. (Kaizen is an editor for the Amherst Indy.) 

The contract for APEA, which represents teachers, school nurses, clerks and paraprofessionals, expires in June. The union has refused repeated requests from the RSC to reopen negotiations on the closing metric, although it agreed to negotiate via “side letters.” Certain teachers are willing to return to buildings voluntarily, including those of preschool children and students with intensive needs, the APEA has said. 

District Will Try to Build An In-Person Program Taught By Individual Teachers Who Return Voluntarily
March is now the target for some in-person learning to resume for ARPS, Morris said at Thursday’s meeting. A survey sent to teachers, asking if they were willing to return to buildings voluntarily, was due back on February 4, and about 400 had responded by midday. The district will work to match students to educators, and contact families if there is an in-person slot available at their child’s grade level. 

“We’ll try to build a program as best we can,” Morris said. A January 29 email from Morris’ office to staff said the return “most likely will not include all grades in all school buildings.”  Teachers have the right to opt in or out of working in person, the email said, and “there will be no repercussions for those who continue working remotely.”  

The School Committee instructed Morris in mid-January to formulate a plan to bring as many children as possible back to schools in-person starting in February, collaborating with the APEA and focusing on preschool and special education students. However, Morris said that logistical considerations, including the winter break that will start February 15, required him to push the date back. 

Thursday’s meeting was the result of a petition filed by 240 residents under the Amherst Home Rule Charter.  Among other arguments, petitioners noted that other districts in Hampshire County are offering in-person learning despite the pandemic.

ARPS has been operating almost fully remotely since last March. A short-lived partial return took place in October, when COVID-19 case numbers rapidly rose above the set limit.

Caution Urged Against A Premature Return 
Questions were raised Thursday about how a return to buildings with partial staffing will impact the existing remote learning program, and if it will lead to reorganization of classes and disruptions for students who are now settled.

“We have a system that I feel should at least go to the end of the year,” said parent Amber Cano Martin. She urged the School Committee to not rush to bring students back, and “take the summer to plan, and do it right.”

Martin said remote learning is not hurting her child, and teachers are “doing the best they can to create some normalcy for our children.” 

Parent Jennifer Page commented that some children are doing better under the remote learning structure, and Morris said he expects some families will seek remote learning next year. However, Morris said it could be challenging and costly to run both in-person and remote systems simultaneously. 

Parent Michael Ash said although the national pandemic response was “a failure of colossal proportions,” schools cannot be reopened safely right now, especially with the arrival of new, more infectious strains of COVID-19. “Teachers and staff cannot be asked to bridge the chasm with their lives and health,” he said.  Ash said that anticipated widespread vaccination will ultimately “provide a safe path,” for school reopening.

The State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education received reports of 894 cases of COVID-19 from public school districts for the week ended February 3, down about 75 cases from the week before. The new figures include 571 cases among students, and 323 staff. Those counted had tested positive within a week of being in a school. (A related Masslive article is here.) The state Department of Public Health’s lengthy weekly report shows that 26 new COVID-19 clusters were identified in K-12 schools in January, but DPH includes private and boarding schools in its calculations. It defines a non-household cluster as two or more people with a common exposure.  

Two recent studies by the Centers for Disease Control yielded mixed results about the spread of COVID-19 in schools, according to this February 2 article in Chalkbeat. 

Proposed Budget Reduction May Lead to Staff Reductions 
Morris said a decline in enrollment and associated state aid are among the factors expected to prompt cuts to the regional school budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. A budget proposal for the Amherst Pelham Regional School District presented on February 2 shows a $1 million reduction. The proposed budget includes elimination of 16.5 full-time or equivalent positions from the middle and high school administration, office and professional and paraeducator staff. The budget presentation, on page 27 here, predicts class size increases and a reduction in elective offerings at the secondary schools. 

Budget talks are still underway, and a “Four Towns” meeting with the Amherst Town Council and Select Boards from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, along with their finance committees and school committees, is set for February 6. A hearing will be held February 9, with budget adoption slated for March. 

Parents State They May Withdraw Children From District Without In-Person Learning 
Parent Ryan McCarthy said that he teaches in another public school district which has children on-site. “I know personally that it can be done safely and effectively,” he said, adding that it is painful to see “how disengaged” his own elementary school children are by remote learning. 

Zac Early, an Amherst parent, said he is proud to teach in Amherst, but remote learning is not an effective substitute for in-person. “We’re working twice as hard for half the result,” he said. Early said he may consider placing his children elsewhere. “In March, we’ll be looking at school choice if our kids can’t be in person,” he said.

Others, some of whom did not give their last names, said they had already taken their children out of the district to attend private schools.

Heather Sheldon, a parent who is co-president of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC), was among several who sounded tearful in their remarks. “Schools have been closed to in-person instruction with teachers and specialists regardless of individual education plans which call for life-changing services like occupational therapy, that can only be delivered meaningfully in-person for almost a year now … virtual learning means no learning for a great many of our students who were designated to be in Phase One,” Sheldon said. 

SEPAC is aware that the District is seeking “creative solutions,” to such problems, and would like use of school buildings “to remain on the list.” 

About 15 students with intensive needs are now getting services on-site in a program at the high school, while 60 children in grades K-12 attend distance learning centers at the middle school, according to Morris. The superintendent has said previously that sending specialists into homes is riskier than having them meet with children in the school buildings, where ventilation has been tested and is being maximized. 

Several parents raised questions about what ARPS will be like in the fall and some sought a pledge from the school committee that all instruction will be in-person.  RSC Chair Allison McDonald said the school committee hopes that will be the case, but there are many unknowns about the pandemic and its course. “We can’t make a hard and fast 100 percent commitment, although that is our goal,” she said. 

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