As parents object to shutdowns, Amherst school officials look to revise health metrics

  • Members of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, wear red shirts to show their solidarity during a meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019 at Amherst Regional High School. —File Photo

  • Fort River Elementary in Amherst. —File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 10/25/2020 7:32:43 PM

AMHERST — Facing objections from parents to their children returning to all-remote instruction beginning Monday, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee wants the teachers union to consider adjusting COVID-19 health metrics used for determining whether schools remain open.

Allison McDonald, chairwoman of the Regional School Committee, stated Friday that she has sent a letter to the Amherst Pelham Education Association requesting the union consider adjustments to the memorandum of agreement negotiated over the summer.

Over the weekend, union leaders said they would consider the request provided that discussions were open to the public.

The agreement set a threshold of 28 cases per 100,000 residents over the preceding seven days, mostly in Hampshire County but also factoring in cases in Franklin and Hampden counties, as triggering a return to remote-only learning. The district’s youngest children had only returned to classrooms on Oct. 15 and were able to remain in the buildings through last week.

As of Friday afternoon, the health metrics showed there were 39.4 cases per 100,000 residents, based on the union’s calculations. The decision to go back to remote instruction, and delay in-person learning for all students until deeper into the fall, came following a Joint Labor Management Safety Committee meeting last Monday afternoon.

After the announcement was made by Superintendent Michael Morris in an email to families, the school committee received letters and voicemails from 130 parents for public comment, including from a group of parents organized as Parents for Science Based Decision Making. That group has formed to object to returning to remote-only learning, and is asking that the town’s health director be involved in consultation on any decision to close school buildings.

Laura Draucker, parent of a Wildwood second grader, wrote in the letter, “These decisions were made in executive sessions without direct parent or caregiver representation, and for which our only opportunity to weigh in has been through one-way public comments to the School Committee. We do not know if health care professionals were consulted and to what extent.”

McDonald said it was uncertain when negotiations might occur with the union.

Public negotiations

The union issued its own statement over the weekend that it would put the request to a vote by its governance “providing any subsequent negotiations be fully transparent and open to the public.”

“We were extremely concerned that the lack of transparency on the part of the Districts and School Committees meant that the public was not aware of the efforts that the (union) made to address the needs of our students and caregivers, as well as our members,” wrote members of the executive board, including President Danielle Seltzer and Vice President Karin Baker.

The union pointed to the joint safety committee as a place for discussions about the health metrics and that it has “received no proposals or recommendations from the district about metrics to bring back to our governance.”

“Much is being said publicly and in the community about the current two-week closure. But absent in the narrative is that the phasing structure and two-week closure action was presented by the Districts, and we agreed to it,” the union noted.

McDonald said proposals from the union, including public bargaining and a community forum, will be discussed by the Regional School Committee this week and that she is “deeply appreciative of the (union) leadership’s desire to collaborate in supporting the needs of our students and their families.”

‘Wasted months’

Letters from parents appeared to support adjusting the health metrics in the memorandum of agreement.

“The metrics set are far too low for us to ever realistically get back to school. It feels like we have wasted months while cases continue to be very low in our area,” wrote Suzanne Newby-Estes, who has children in sixth and ninth grades.

“The minimal rise in COVID cases that this decision was based on does not concern our district or its students, nor does it pose an imminent threat to the health of our community, our staff, our teachers, and our children,” wrote Letizia Allais, parent of two elementary school children.

McDonald thanked the parents, caregivers and community members who have spoken up and shared their concerns.

“We are grateful for the valuable and overwhelming amount of feedback and input we are receiving from the community,” McDonald wrote.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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