Ditching remote: Dozens of Amherst-area families make other school choices

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  • First-grader Sebastian Sienkewicz of Pelham plays with twirlies with Learn at Morse Hill science teacher Rosa Whelpley during a period of free play for kindergarten, first- and second-graders at the outdoor school in Shutesbury on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Second-grader Jasper Hoxie-Golding, left, and first-grader Sebastian Sienkewicz listen to Learn at Morse Hill Director Corinne Shaw read from Chapter 5 of “The Hobbit” during the after-lunch community read at the outdoor school in Shutesbury on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Olive Barber of Pelham picks up her son, Sebastian Sienkewicz, after his day attending Learn at Morse Hill in Shutesbury on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • First-grader Sebastian Sienkewicz, left, of Pelham plays with twirlies with Learn at Morse Hill science teacher Rosa Whelpley, right, during a period of free play for kindergarten, first- and second-graders at the outdoor school in Shutesbury on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • First-graders Sebastian Sienkewicz, left, Ezra Dunford, center, and second-grader Jasper Hoxie-Golding “chop up” some greenery to make a “vegetable surprise” during a period of free play at Learn at Morse Hill in Shutesbury on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Olive Barber of Pelham picks up her son, Sebastian Sienkewicz, after his day attending Learn at Morse Hill in Shutesbury on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Learn at Morse Hill Director Corinne Shaw reads from chapter five of "The Hobbit" to a class of kindergarten, first- and second-graders during a community read time after lunch at the outdoor school in Shutesbury on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • First-grader Sebastian Sienkewicz of Pelham plays twirlies during a free play period at Learn at Morse Hill school in Shutesbury on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/3/2020 8:52:13 PM
Modified: 12/3/2020 8:52:02 PM

AMHERST — At the beginning of the fall semester, as remote instruction at Pelham Elementary School continued, Olive Barber and Peter Sienkewicz opted to have their first-grader enroll at Learn at Morse Hill in Shutesbury, where all teaching is being done in person and outdoors.

“We decided to go for it and are really glad we did,” Barber said Wednesday, noting that the decision has proven prescient as the youngest children in Pelham and Amherst schools spent only a few days in classrooms in October before returning to virtual instruction. “I don’t want him to go back to learning on a computer all day.”

Barber and Sienkewicz are among at least 82 families who have withdrawn their children from the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools this school year. Nearly half of them are turning to private schools in the region, according to the results of a survey presented to the Amherst and Regional school committees by Superintendent Michael Morris this week.

Of those 82 families, 39 have chosen private schools, with 17 families opting to home-school their children. Another 12 families are sending their children to another public school as choice students, and eight families are enrolling their children at charter schools.

No surprise

That so many of these families, 60 of whom continue to reside in Amherst, Pelham, Leverett or Shutesbury, have found “alternative educational opportunities,” is not surprising to Amherst parent Allecia Reid.

While her 5-year-old and 9-year-old are still in kindergarten and fourth grade at Crocker Farm School in Amherst, Reid and husband Ryan McCarthy looked into private school options such as The Common School and Amherst Montessori School.

“We were very actively considering it,” Reid said.

Reid said her kindergartner is in the remote class for about 90 minutes each day, while her fourth grader is being taught for six hours daily, split about evenly between synchronous remote learning, when he is able to be active and interacting with his classmates, and a less productive asynchronous learning time.

Because McCarthy is teaching in person at the Hampshire Regional School District, Reid said her family has hired help to make it through the school day.

“We’re paying private school prices to keep them in school,” Reid said.

Of five families with school-age children on her street that she knows, two have discontinued their children’s education at Amherst schools.

Though Morris told the committees that there is no singular reason parents have withdrawn their children, the lack of in-person schooling has been identified in some of the anonymous feedback in the surveys.

“We are the only district in the area that has not managed, in some creative and surgical way, to get at least some children the in-person support they desperately need,” one family wrote.

Another parent wrote, “My child has benefited greatly from having access to an in-person education this year out of district.”

Morris earlier in the fall projected a 4.4% drop in enrollment that would take the number of students in the district below 2,500. That is in line with the 4% decline in public school enrollment across the state reported to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education last week. Part of that drop was attributed to more students going to private schools or home schooling.

Fewer students means a likely drop in Chapter 70 state educational aid, which is based on enrollment. Morris has told the committees that the fiscal year 2022 budget year, beginning next July 1, will be the first to feel the brunt of lower enrollment.

The surveys of Amherst area families also show that more than half of them are ready to return, with 35 who would definitely or likely have their students re-enroll once in-person education returns, and 27 who say they would definitely not or be unlikely to re-enroll.

Health metrics

Barber and Reid are part of a group of 105 parents who would like to see the Joint Labor Management Safety Committee, which discusses how to safely reopen, examine the health metrics related to COVID-19. In a memorandum of agreement between the school district and the Amherst Pelham Education Association, a threshold was set at 28 positive cases per 100,000 residents in the region over a seven-day rolling average. When that was exceeded in October, the decision to return to fully remote instruction was made.

Morris told the committees Tuesday that he wouldn’t unilaterally override the agreement’s health metric, but would reopen the schools only if given the advice to do so, likely from the joint safety committee.

“The most frustrating thing is the lack of negotiations and follow-the-science as we learn more information,” Barber said.

“It’s really frustrating to see so many other districts moving forward while we’re in a stalemate,” Reid said.

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


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