School Reopening Plan Is Very Limited As Most Teachers Choose to Stay Remote

Wildwood School. Photo: Toni Cunningham

Residents Urge Amherst To Fill Regional School District Budget Gap With Police Department Funds 

The prospect of a broad return to Amherst Regional Public School District buildings amid the COVID-19 pandemic dimmed this week, when Superintendent Michael Morris announced that a small fraction of staff had volunteered to teach in-person.

A survey of school staff, including teachers, paraeducators, counselors and clerks showed that 91 of about 428 employees who responded were willing to return to buildings in March, or about one-fifth of the staff total. In comments, staff said they wanted to wait and be vaccinated before returning, and cited safety concerns and family responsibilities, Morris said.  

A handful of classrooms each are expected to open at Crocker Farm and Wildwood Elementary Schools, while Fort River and Pelham Elementary Schools, along with Amherst Regional Middle School and High School, don’t have enough volunteers to warrant general reopening, Morris said. A presentation from Tuesday’s Regional School Committee (RSC) meeting begins on page 9 here.

The RSC and the Amherst Town Council voted in favor of a joint resolution last week, calling on the state legislature, Governor Baker, and the Department of Public Health to move teachers further up in the state vaccination timeline. Those eligible for vaccination now include people ages 65 and older, or with two underlying medical conditions. Staff in K-12 schools are expected to be in the next group, along with grocery, transit, and utility workers. (A related article is here.) 

At Tuesday’s meeting of the Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst Regional School Committees, Morris said he was being “intentionally vague” about the limited ARPS reopening plans, in part because he did not want to immediately identify the teachers involved. “We’re still working on the details,” he said.  Morris said that families were expected to hear by Friday (February 19) if an in-person slot might be available for their child. 

ARPS have been fully remote for most students since mid-March of 2020. The district and teachers’ union agreed in late September to a regional COVID-19 caseload limit of 28 per 100,000 people over seven days, but that threshold was quickly breached. As of February 10, the weighted COVID-19 case rate was 336.6 per 100,000 people, according to the ARPS website. The formula includes data from Hampshire, Franklin and Hampden countries, but weighs Hampshire County more heavily. 

The Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) has rejected school committee requests to renegotiate and loosen the closing standard, although it has negotiating via “side letters” concerning preschool and special needs students. 

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has not updated its spreadsheet of how schools are operating for many months, although CBS Boston reported that about 450,000 students statewide are in schools. That number is roughly half of the state’s public school population. Nationally, about 41 percent of children are receiving daily in-person instruction, the Washington Post reported this week, while 34 percent are fully remote and 19 percent receive a hybrid of remote and virtual teaching.

Public schools statewide have seen a drop in enrollment of about four percent, which is attributed to families shifting to in-person private schools, homeschooling, and school dropouts. (See a related article here.)  

Resolution For Full-Time In-Person Schooling Is “Non-Negotiable”
On Tuesday, the school committees voted in favor of a resolution to provide full-time in-person learning for the full 2021-2022 school year for all students, “provided that there is full adherence to local public health and safety guidelines.” Under the superintendent’s management, any shift back to remote learning will be based on “continuous assessment of health conditions in direct consultation with local public health officials.” 

The move followed a February 4 “Open Meeting of the Residents” about prolonged remote learning, where several commenters urged the Amherst School Committee to commit to in-person school for the fall. School Committee member Heather Lord questioned the motion’s language. “I’m just concerned, I don’t want to seem like we’re circumventing our unions,” she said. 

RSC Chair Allison McDonald said she checked with the district’s attorney about the resolution’s language, and was told that full-time in-person learning is “core education” and can’t be bargained over or negotiated. An initial draft of the resolution included the provision that vaccines were made available to teachers, however, the school committees dropped that language. 

Between February 4 and 10, there were 674 new COVID-19 cases among students and staff who had been in Massachusetts schools, a drop of 25-percent from the prior week, according to CBS Boston. DESE will next post a report, including cases from February 11 to 24, on February 25.

Classrooms To Open At Crocker Farm, Wildwood
As of Tuesday’s meeting, the plans for limited reopening of individual ARPS buildings included:

*At Crocker Farm, where 9 teachers and 20 support staff have volunteered to teach in-person, many of whom work in the preschool, Morris said that preschool and four “primary grade” classrooms should open March 1, with another higher-grade elementary classroom added in mid-March.

*At Fort River, where 3 teachers and 6 support staff volunteered to return, there is not enough staff to reopen the building, but the district plans to serve Fort River’s special education students at Crocker Farm or Wildwood instead. 

*At Wildwood, where 8 teachers and 8 support staff offered to return,up to 5 classrooms spread across grades are expected to open mid-March.

*At Pelham, where 4 teachers and 3 support staff volunteered, there is not sufficient staff to reopen, Morris said.

*At Amherst Regional Middle School, where 5 teachers and 8 support staff volunteered to return, there is not sufficient staff to reopen generally, although the District may move special education students to Amherst Regional High School. 

*At Amherst Regional High School, where six teachers and 10 support staff volunteered to return, the District will not reopen general classrooms, but will explore accommodating more special education students, along with English Language Learners, under a “distance learning center” model. 

“All Of This Is Imperfect”
Morris said it “feels awkward” to reopen 2 of 3 Amherst elementary buildings, and to have some classes in person, but not others. 

“All of this is imperfect,” he said, adding that it is “not particularly equitable.”

Morris was directed by the RSC in January to develop a plan for in-person learning for as many children as possible, with an emphasis on preschool and children with special needs. In public comments, parents have urged reopening, stating that their children were struggling and unhappy. Some said they have transferred their children elsewhere or plan to do so. 

“Our current situation is also very imperfect,” McDonald said. 

School committee member Peter Demling said he appreciated all the teachers who responded to the survey, including those who said they want to continue remote instruction. Although reopening will be limited and uneven, “we need to provide in person wherever it is possible.” 

However, Demling also raised questions about how late into this school year a return to buildings would be practical or feasible. Morris said that having many children return would involve “remixing” of students who may be settled with their teachers. “Beyond April, the cost benefits get very complex,” he said. 

Demling praised the district’s teachers and remote instruction. “We have the best-in-class remote learning offered of any district,” he said. He has regularly emphasized remote learning doesn’t work for all students, including some with special needs. There are “literally hundreds of students that I would assume to be in crisis,” Demling said.

Some Call For Reducing Amherst Police Funds To Fill Regional Schools Budget Gap
The proposed operating budget for the regional school district is $32 million, and includes $1 million in reductions sought by the participating towns, which include Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury. 

The reduction would result in 15.9 full-time or equivalent job cuts at the middle and high school, most of which would come from not filling vacancies. Only 1.6 jobs would result in a “reduction in force”, said ARPS Finance Director Doug Slaughter at a February 9 budget hearing. Among other cost-saving measures, the District would not fill a vacant outreach position at the Family Center, or hire a bilingual psychologist as planned. Meanwhile, some administrative responsibilities at the high school would be shifted, and one dean’s position eliminated.
 
Numerous residents and recent Amherst Regional High School alumni submitted comments urging rejection of the proposed budget. 

“We need to invest in our schools now more than ever, so that when this pandemic finally ends, we can send our students back to in-person learning with fully funded schools,” wrote Ben Gilsdorf, a student at Amherst College. 

Leif Maynard, an ARHS graduate who is now a student at Bowdoin College, was among several commenters who urged the Town of Amherst to reduce the police department budget and use the funds to support the regional schools. “Keeping a bloated policing budget intact while decreasing support for students and making workers of color vulnerable to layoffs is harmful, misguided, and not who we are as a community,” Maynard wrote. The language alleging “a bloated policing budget,” was repeated in several of the letters. 

The RSC said that cuts to the police budget are not within its authority, and urged the commenters to contact the Amherst Town Council instead. “All of the young people who advocated tonight, please keep it up,” Demling said. 

The Amherst Indy sent an email to the Town Council on February.10, asking if the town could in theory offset the regional district budget gap with Amherst Police Department funds, along with questions about the police budget and size of the police force. 

“Due to the nature of your questions it will take some time to respond,” Town Council President Lynn Griesemer replied. 

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, in an email to a parents’ Google group this week, said the regional budget assessment method, which determines how much funding  Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury will each provide, has been changing every year. The formula has gradually shifted from a “regional agreement” under which each town would pay the same per pupil cost, toward a state assessment method, based on the towns’ assessed property values and income taxes. The sums paid by the three other towns to support the regional middle and high school have all been declining, Hanneke stated. 

The next RSC meeting is set for February 23, when an executive session is planned about contract negotiations with non-union personnel. The agenda is here.

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