‘Our kids shouldn’t be lab rats’: Amherst, Pelham school officials air concerns over reopening guidelines

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris. FILE PHOTO

  • Children board buses at Wildwood Elementary School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2020 3:53:37 PM

AMHERST — A guideline from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that would position student desks in school classrooms as close as 3 feet together this fall is raising worries for elected school officials.

During a joint meeting of the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham and Pelham school committees on Thursday, board members told Superintendent Michael Morris that he should continue to plan for reopening public schools with desks set at least 6 feet apart for appropriate social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Three feet is ridiculous,” said Pelham representative Ron Mannino of the preliminary guidance.

“This whole plan, as far as I’m concerned, is politically motivated for business as usual to open the schools and send all the kids back, with health precautions,” Mannino said.

The guidelines for reopening schools, put out by Jeffrey C. Riley, commissioner of education, stipulate that children in second grade and up wear face coverings over their noses and mouths, that periodic mask breaks be offered and that regular hand washing and sanitizing take place.

School districts are also being instructed to develop three models for education: entirely in-class learning, entirely remote learning and a mixed model.

The views of the committee members stand in some contrast to what superintendents and School Committee members in other local school districts said about the state’s framework for reopening in a Gazette article on Monday.

Morris said he wants to open schools in compliance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards and that reducing separation of desks from 6 feet to 3 feet changes dynamics from how he, staff and administrators had been preparing.

“I will tell you bluntly that 3 feet is not much different than what our current system is,” Morris said.

He added that some parents might be reluctant to send their children back to school if social distancing is insufficient. “I fully endorse 6 feet,” Morris said.

Pelham representative Margaret Stancer said 3-feet separations seems designed to allow for children to be back in school every day rather than having remote learning continue in any way.

Amherst representative Ben Herrington said he is not willing “to budge a millimeter, a spec or an atom” on the safety of children, and wants the 6-feet separation to happen.

“Our kids shouldn’t be lab rats, and our buildings shouldn’t be petri dishes, especially for someone’s political gains,” Herrington said.

Regional School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said the guidance from the state doesn’t pass the smell test and that studies Riley uses in initial guidance may be outdated.

Amherst and Pelham public schools should be following public health experts as opposed to what is said by the education commissioner, said Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Sarah Hall.

Amherst representative Peter Demling said he hopes the theory that children pose a minimal risk of transmission is true, but that it would be irresponsible to believe that. He said the state education officials seems to have started with a conclusion that all children will be back in classrooms in the fall and then justified that approach with studies they could find.

But the science doesn’t yet show that children are less likely to spread the virus, Demling said: “I hope that the established scientific consensus comes to that.”

Amherst representative Kerry Spitzer said she understands the 6-foot distance will be a burden for families, but that it is preferable to err on the side of caution in protecting the health of the community.

“I found it really surprising that they would advise 3 feet,” Spitzer said.

Pelham School Committee member Jessica Jean-Louis said that in addition to keeping 6 feet of social distancing, she would like to see younger children, including those in first grade and kindergarten, wear masks since it is more challenging to get them to have personal boundaries.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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