‘No good solution’: Parents, teachers, staff grapple with back-to-school season like no other

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  • Bridge Street School parent Gessell Morgan and her three children, preschooler Angel Rodriguez, left, 4, fourth grader Saida Perez, 9, and third grader Sasha Rodriguez, 8, play in Lampron Park next to the Northampton elementary school on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School paraeducator Sarah Jergensen and her two daughters, Penelope, 7, and Hope, right, 5, sit on the front steps of their Springfield home on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parent Gessell Morgan and her three children, preschooler Angel Rodriguez, 4, fourth grader Saida Perez, 9, and third grader Sasha Rodriguez, 8, visit Lampron Park next to the Northampton elementary school on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Sarah Jergensen is a paraeducator at Amherst Regional High School. Photographed on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020, in Springfield. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional High School paraeducator Sarah Jergensen and her two daughters, Hope, left, 5, and Penelope, 7, sit on the front steps of their Springfield home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parent Gessell Morgan and her three children, fourth grader Saida Perez, left, 9, preschooler Angel Rodriguez, 4, and third grader Sasha Rodriguez, 8, play in Lampron Park next to the Northampton elementary school on Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 12, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parent Gessell Morgan and her three children, preschooler Angel Rodriguez, 4, fourth grader Saida Perez, 9, and third grader Sasha Rodriguez, 8, visit Lampron Park next to the Northampton elementary school on Wednesday afternoon. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hope, left, and Penelope Jergensen, 5 and 7, daughters of Amherst Regional High School paraeducator Sarah Jergensen, play in the rhododendron bush outside their Springfield home on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 2020. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/14/2020 8:05:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Sarah Jergensen and her family have barely left their Springfield home in months. In addition to her daughter who’s in second grade, she lives with several people whom she worries are at a higher risk for COVID-19: two parents over 65, a brother who is immunocompromised and her 5-five-year-old daughter, who has cystic fibrosis. Now, Jergensen fears she may have to go back in person to her job as a paraeducator at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. 

The district decided last week that only students in priority groups — including preschool through first grade in the Amherst schools and preschool through second grade in Pelham, beginner English language learners, students in certain special education programs and homeless students — will go to school in person until more students are phased in, starting in October. 

Jergensen sometimes works with students who receive special education services, and she’s not yet sure if she will have to return to school in person in September.

“The anxiety is building, and I’m losing sleep,” she said. A single mother, she is particularly concerned about her younger daughter, who is supposed to be entering kindergarten at Wildwood Elementary. “I don’t know what remote kindergarten looks like, but I feel like it’s the safest option,” said Jergensen, who’s considering keeping her younger child home. “I’d rather have her be alive to go into first grade.”

As Jergensen put it, her situation is “so far removed from the norm” — not every family shares “960 square feet with high-risk individuals.” But with so many divergent needs across the district, it’s impossible to come up with a reopening plan that satisfies everyone. “I don’t envy anybody who had to make the choice,” she said.

That sentiment was shared by Tom Chang, a math intervention teacher at Jackson Street School who has three kids at the school.

“In any scenario, people are suffering. There’s no good solution,” Chang said last week. “All of the options come at a hugely disproportionate cost to front-line workers, people of low socioeconomic status, people of color,” he said, noting that Black people are dying of COVID-19 at a higher rate than white people. “This is a major equity issue.”

Chang says opening schools right now doesn’t make sense. If there were a shooter, “We wouldn’t say, ‘Come in,’ but ‘stay 6 feet away from my kids,’” he said. “This killer is not a maybe ... It’s in town.”

As school districts across the Valley solidify their plans for the fall, parents/guardians, students, educators and other school staff are figuring out how to navigate school in the time of COVID-19. Many school districts in the Valley have chosen remote options after long and sometimes heated public meetings. Some public schools, such as the Anne T. Dunphy School in Williamsburg and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton, will start the year with a hybrid plan, while some private schools, including Deerfield Academy, will resume in person.

On Friday, school districts across the state had to submit their final reopening plans, and in the lead-up to the deadline, some parents and students grew more vocal in their support for in-person learning — earlier this week, the group “Bring Kids Back MA” rallied outside the Statehouse in Boston. Gov. Charlie Baker, meanwhile, said that many municipalities in the state have COVID-19 levels that make it safe for students to spend at least some time in the classroom this fall. About half of likely Massachusetts voters said they supported hybrid learning this fall, according to a recent WBUR poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group.

Exploring options

One thing that’s certain: There’s still much uncertainty as families try to figure out child care, navigate their own work situations, and, in some cases, “pod up” with other families for tutoring and home-schooling. More than 130 respondents filled out a Gazette survey about going back to school amid the pandemic, sharing their thoughts on all of the above.

Child care is an issue for many working families. Recently, Kelly Capponcelli and her husband started to look at their budget and think about what could be cut. With her third grader’s school — South Hadley’s Mosier Elementary School — going remote this fall, Kelly worried she would need to stay home from her office job at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Late last week, after multiple requests, she found out she can work from home part time. “It was such a relief,” she said. “My blood pressure went down.” On the days she is at work, her son will be part of a “pod” of other similarly aged kids run by someone she knows.

She said she feels fortunate. In order to supervise a child learning remotely at home, some families “will literally have to lose one income out of a two-income household,” she noted. She understands why school is starting remotely but thinks there needs to be more help for working parents from employers or the state. “More than just a one-time stimulus check that they are going to have to use on other things already,” she said. “I’m lucky I’m not in that position anymore. But it was a very terrifying feeling to not know.”

Gessell Morgan, the parent of a fourth grader, a third grader and a preschooler at Bridge Street School, is happy that Northampton Public Schools will start off remotely. She fears that if her kids go back into school at a later date, vulnerable family members will be at risk.

Morgan gets help with child care from family members, but some relatives have health issues. “I’m a single mother,” she said. “My mother is always around me to help me with my kids.”

Morgan works at the Hampshire Regional YMCA in Northampton, where she cleans the building on weekends, allowing her to be with her kids during the week. Remote school is a better option for her family, she said, but there needs to be robust teaching support for students. Morgan said she has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to teach. She thinks about other parents with similar issues being tasked with teaching their kids at home.

Emergency room doctor Liza Smith, who has a kindergartner and second grader at South Hadley Public Schools, doesn’t worry as much about exposure. “My impression is that I’m less worried than average,” she said, noting the effectiveness of personal protective equipment. She doesn’t want to underplay “how dangerous and how infectious and serious this disease is,” she said, but she has seen firsthand how PPE works.

She has concerns about distance learning and hopes it will go better for her kids this fall than it did in the spring.

In the meantime, Smith has been treating COVID-19 patients every day at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, where she also oversees medical students. That makes podding up with another family unrealistic, she said: “Nobody wants me in a bubble.”

‘Double bubble’

NJ Rongner is part of a “double bubble” with another family — they will home-school their kids together in Holyoke. “We are not hanging out with endless people upon people … My family isn’t going to church right now. Even though the church is open, and we love our faith community … we want to honor and protect our double bubble.”

Rongner, the parent of a second grader and sixth grader, will be compensating her friend, an experienced home-schooler, for her time.

Last spring, Rongner and her husband, who both work full time from home, were able to supervise their kids, then students at First Luthern School in Holyoke.

“What we couldn’t do was the back-and-forth with the teachers,” she said. “The emailing of the assignments, the keeping track of when the kids needed to be on a Zoom call … We couldn’t manage the administrative side of it.”

Amid the uncertainty this year, “We decided we were going to just control the controllable,” she said. “The big deal breaker for us was that I didn’t feel like I could ask my kids to wear a mask at school all day when wearing a mask for me to go grocery shopping feels claustrophobic and overwhelming,” she said. “How can my child who is in a learning environment learn if she also feels boxed in?”

Others like Rongner are planning to home-school this coming year. One parent who responded to the Gazette survey planned to sign up their fourth grader for the Khan Academy, a nonprofit online learning platform.

Other parents have raised a red flag about what opting out could mean for public education. “I’m really concerned with the amount of people who are exploring home-schooling or online charter schools as an option,” said Northampton Public Schools parent Michelle Sullivan last month at a School Committee meeting. “I’m concerned we’re going to hemorrhage students and the money that goes with them.”

As families weigh whether to opt out, staff don’t necessarily have that option. Jergensen, the paraeducator, is still waiting to find out whether she has to return to school in person.

Michael Morris, superintendent of Amherst regional schools, told the Gazette the district can’t publicly comment on the policy around staff opting out as it is “a topic for bargaining with our unions.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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