In Amherst, ‘de-densifying’ schools key to reopening in fall 

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 6/5/2020 10:53:37 AM

AMHERST — If elementary and regional schools in Amherst and Pelham reopen in the fall, a series of steps would be taken to promote public health, including social distancing, fewer students in classrooms and better ventilation in buildings, according to a fall 2020 planning report unveiled by Superintendent Michael Morris this week.

Morris told the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham school committees at a joint meeting Wednesday that his priority will be following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for how to safely reopen schools for K-12 education.

“We have to use the public health information to plan the public education information,” Morris said.

That means that there would bef fewer children in each classroom, fewer educational spaces to limit movement throughout the day, and entering and exiting the buildings in a more structured manner. All fit under a theme of “de-densifying schools,” Morris said.

Morris added that the biggest challenges will be how to get children to school and how to serve them meals.

Although the report focuses on how to meet CDC guidelines, several aspects of any return have yet to be addressed by state officials.

Those include whether temperature checks for students and staff will be needed, whether personal protective equipment will have to be worn, such as face masks, and how to provide options for families who don’t want their children in classrooms. Guidance from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected in mid-June that will provide direction on how to handle preschools and busing.

Amherst administrators are looking closely at two models. Under the first, known as K-12 Hybrid Model, students would return to school in alternating smaller groups, possibly for in-school education two days a week, or every other day, or every other week.

The second model, called Prioritize Elementary Education, would have elementary students attend school five days a week, with some upper-grade elementary students possibly needing to have classes in a regional school building, middle or high school. This would mean middle and high school students would have enhanced remote learning plans.

A third option, a split-day model that would extend the school day, is not considered feasible due to transportation and cleaning costs.

Morris said there needs to be caution and a conservative approach in bringing back students, observing that in some places where children have returned there has been a spike in cases of COVID-19.

But he also pointed out that research reports show academic progress is harmed by virtual learning, which is more acute in children with special needs and English language learners. It is likely that some combination of classroom and remote learning will continue to be necessary.

“We will not have 2,600 students in our three districts in school at the same time in the fall,” Morris said. “It just can’t happen from a public health perspective.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at

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