School Committee: Northampton schools to go remote through Nov. 4

  • GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 8/7/2020 10:51:33 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton Public Schools will start the year with most students working from home this fall, after the School Committee voted overwhelmingly to move forward with remote learning for elementary, middle and high school students. 

The city’s School Committee made the decision Thursday during a meeting that lasted until the early hours of Friday morning. After lengthy discussions, as well nearly 90 minutes of public comment, the body voted to reopen schools remotely on Sept. 16 until at least Nov. 4. 

“I support the decision,” Mayor David Narkewicz, who chairs the School Committee, told the Gazette. He also acknowledged that Thursday’s decision will cause both relief and anxiety in the school community. “At the end of the day, I think the School Committee looked at what was happening, not only in the area and statewide but across the country, and wanted to err on the side of caution.”

Narkewicz said the city, district and state’s next task is understanding what metrics should dictate when schools should move to a hybrid model. Thursday’s decision does not affect Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, which has its own board of trustees that have adopted a vocational hybrid model. Preschools in Northampton are also separate, and Narkewicz said they have been prioritized for in-person learning.

In late July, Northampton Public Schools submitted three models — in-person, remote and hybrid — to the state’s education department, and on Thursday the School Committee was tasked with selecting one. Their decision was informed by many factors, including feedback Superintendent John Provost collected during town hall events across the district and the sentiments shared by the public Thursday.

“At this time, I feel like I’ve done my duty,” Provost said, noting that he has put together as many as 15 different plans. But he said that the decision about reopening cannot be made by one person and that he was glad to hand that responsibility to the School Committee.

Those who spoke during public comment — almost all of whom supported remote learning — recognized the difficult choice before the School Committee.

“We know this is a heart-wrenching time for all of us and that you have a nearly impossible set of choices to make,” said Amy Waldman, the parent of a high schooler. Waldman noted that her family lives behind the high school and sees a “parade of teenagers” going by daily, most of whom are not wearing masks. “We had not adequately established norms of mask-wearing here, nor social distancing.”

Many emphasized that they felt it was not yet safe to bring people back into school buildings and highlighted the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on people of color.

“The data shows that our Black families and educators have higher rates of history of negligence from our health care system that has continued into the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mareatha Wallace, an educational support professional in the district. Wallace read from a letter signed by some school staff stating that it is not acceptable to put Black and brown educators’ lives at risk: “We do not yet know about the long-term effects COVID-19 will have on adults and children.”

The meeting featured comments by school employees from across the district, including leaders of the staff union who said a premature reopening could lead to a wave of infection. There were also speakers who highlighted the challenges that remote learning would present for students with special needs, working parents and guardians, and students who struggle with remote learning.

“Faculty, staff and students at Northampton schools should not be forced to participate in a potential fatal experiment,” said Elan Abrel, the parent of an incoming kindergartner.

Following public comment, Northampton’s Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary answered many questions from School Committee members about safety, possible scenarios if somebody in the school community gets sick, ways to increase classroom spacing, COVID-19 testing, what Northampton’s coronavirus data show, mask wearing, vaccines, contact tracing and more.

O’Leary and Jenny Meyer, the city’s full-time public health nurse, said they hope the state puts together the metrics for whether it is safe to move into a hybrid model.

Later, the School Committee members began discussing the merits of the various models. With a motion on the table to approve remote learning for middle and high school students until Nov. 3, at-large member Roni Gold said he couldn’t support that plan. He added that while public comments at the meeting were in favor of remote learning, others in the community who did not speak at the meeting had contacted the School Committee with other ideas. 

“We received dozens and dozens of emails from members of the community asking us to select the hybrid model,” Gold said. He also said that some 60% of families who spoke during Provost’s town halls said they would feel comfortable with a hybrid model.

Gold pointed to two perspectives in particular. He read one parent and employee’s letter, which argued that the reopening plan should require individualized options for high-needs learners. He also quoted from a letter by Diana Johanson, a physician at Northampton Area Pediatrics, spotlighting the stress created by isolation and the struggles that children with behavioral health issues or special needs have had with remote learning.

“We did hear from our health director and her team ... that it is safe for us to go into the hybrid model,” Gold said, referring to O’Leary. 

Ward 2 member Laura Fallon and others highlighted the scientific unknowns of the virus. 

“Given how this virus behaves, how it’s blowing up around the world, there’s nothing they could say right now to make me feel like we’re not at risk for having something similar happen in our community,” said Susan Voss, an at-large member of the School Committee. “I think it’s more important to err on the side of caution."

Ultimately, the committee voted 9 to 1, with Gold the lone dissenting vote, to move forward with remote learning for most students. The motion that was approved states that if safety metrics adopted by the city’s Pandemic Response Team are met, the schools will move to a hybrid model at the next natural break in the school calendar, after Nov. 4.

The work doesn’t stop there. At 7 a.m. Friday, Provost said that his team was already beginning to make calls to 600 families with children in grades K through 2, asking whether they had access to a computer or not. The district, which already has a laptop program in place for other grades, is taking part in a state program to purchase Chromebooks. Provost said 340 families said they needed a computer.

“There are no good solutions at this time,” Provost said, speaking generally of the reopening plan. “It is always a process of trying to balance the risk presented by the virus with the potential benefits of learning in any on e of the three models, and that’s a balance that’s going to change over time.”




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