School Start Times Will Shift In Fall
The Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees (RSC), are expected to vote tonight (Wednesday, March 3) to invite all elementary school students back to buildings in April.
The District’s lawyers determined that part of an agreement with the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) is invalid, RSC Chair Allison McDonald said at a meeting last night. The result is that schools can reopen even when COVID-19 case numbers are above the limit set by that agreement.
“We’re not constrained, this decision rests with us,” McDonald said at the virtual meeting, which ran to almost 10 p.m.
In a separate yet significant development, the school committees voted unanimously last night to change school start times for the fall. Exact times were not set yet, but elementary schools will start at 8 a.m. or later, and secondary schools after 8:45 a.m. This change is a “flip” of the standard start times prior to the current school year, when elementary schools started at 8:40 a.m. and secondary schools at 7:45 a.m. Families of middle and high school students showed broad support for a permanent later start time, after experiencing a 9 a.m.start with remote school.
“I’m so happy we have finally arrived here,” said RSC member Peter Demling, who was a strong proponent of the later start for middle and high school students. (Here is a statement from the district about the change.)
Regarding the agreement with the teachers’ union, McDonald said she received written legal advice yesterday stating that the COVID-19 metrics it contains are not valid. She referred to a February 9 decision in a Melrose case by the Department of Labor Relations (DLR.) An agreement between Melrose teachers and that city’s school district, which would have closed schools when COVID-19 positivity rates rose above 2%, was deemed unenforceable by DLR Counsel Gail Sorokoff. The Melrose decision asserted a school committee’s right to determine the learning model used, and said the choice could not be delegated to employees or made the subject of collective bargaining.
Although the DLR has not adjudicated the Amherst agreement, McDonald expressed confidence that the Melrose decision on COVID-19 metrics is precedent-setting. McDonald said that other parts of the Amherst agreement are valid and remain in force, including language on six.-foot distancing, personal protective equipment and other precautions.
The APEA did not comment on the Melrose decision when contacted this past weekend, but issued a statement and a press release, urging the school committees to delay voting on the return to in-person learning.
“The APEA Executive Board has asked that the School Committee postpone the vote, and has requested a meeting to discuss ideas for spring in-person opportunities … the board feels that a vote from the SC at this time is not conducive to planning WITH educators,” the union stated in an email sent by member Claire Cocco.
About one-fifth of teachers who were surveyed by the district recently said they were willing to return voluntarily to in-person learning. Some classrooms opened at Crocker Farm elementary on Monday, while others are expected to open at Wildwood later this month.
McDonald presented a motion last night directing Superintendent Michael Morris to develop a plan for in-person learning for all students beginning in April, which the RSC is expected to vote on tonight, (3/3). However, the committee could vote to amend that motion, to include only elementary and middle school students. Morris said last night that an elementary return is feasible, but he was not optimistic about the prospect of general return for high school students, who health officials believe are more likely to spread COVID-19. A plan for the middle school is evolving, Morris said, adding that it might involve students attending in-person two days per week.
Morris said he expects the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to issue a mandate soon, requiring elementary schools to provide in-person learning, while emphasis from the Biden administration and elsewhere has been on return of younger students.
Declining enrollment over the last 10 years will enable the elementary schools to maintain 6-foot distancing between desks, Morris said, adding that area districts have found that about two-thirds of all students are returning to buildings when invited.
The need to retain remote classrooms for those who unable or not wanting to return will mean that classes will have to be reconfigured, and additional staff will need to be hired, Morris said.
The APEA has formed a committee to “proactively plan for safe, equitable, and pedagogically sound in-person opportunities for all grade levels,” which met February 16.
“With spring approaching and vaccines for educators on the horizon, the APEA wants to think creatively about how to build on the powerful classroom communities developed in remote learning and safely provide social-emotional and academic opportunities in person,” the press release stated.
In nearly 52 pages of public comment submitted to the RSC last night, many parents expressed their frustration over the continued closure of most of the district’s schools, and with the partial reopening of Crocker Farm and Wildwood elementary schools, but not Fort River or Pelham elementary.
“I am very concerned by the fact that Fort River is the only school that is not (even partially or in a hybrid-mode) reopening in March 2021,” wrote Mariana Ivanova, the parent of a 1st and 3rd grader at Fort River.
Other parents talked about the toll remote learning has taken on their children. Charlotte Hanen wrote that her daughter in the 8th grade was new to the district in fall 2019, and now has been attending remotely for almost a year. “She has never had the opportunity to see the school, meet her teachers, or make new friends. At the age of 13, friends and social peer relationships are extremely important. Sitting alone in a room with a computer seeing no other kids is not healthy mentally or physically,” Hansen wrote.
The APEA said that it advocates for a “collaborative, rather than top-down, approach to planning, rooted in community building, constituent buy-in, and educational and public health best practices.”
An agenda for Wednesday’s meeting is here.