South Hadley approves November return for youngest and high-needs students

  • Plains Elementary School in South Hadley. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2020 8:20:06 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The South Hadley School Committee voted this week to approve a schedule that will phase high-needs students, preschoolers and kindergartners back for in-person learning by the end of November.

Under the plan, students with high needs and preschoolers will return for in-person learning on Nov. 9, followed by kindergartners and children from families with critical child care needs on Nov. 16 or 30.

The committee did not finalize a date for the general cohort of students to return on a hybrid schedule, but the superintendent’s office anticipates that this will be on Nov. 30 or Jan. 4.

The School Committee deliberated for nearly two hours before passing the schedule as members weighed the safety of an in-person return, which had previously been scheduled to begin Jan. 4 on a hybrid basis for the general student population. But as COVID-19 metrics have fluctuated and other area schools return to in-person learning, members have discussed the possibility of shifting this return to an earlier date. 

School Committee member Christine Phillips spoke in favor of an earlier start date for the general student population. 

“I feel that waiting for our hybrid to start in January is not fair to our regular education students,” Phillips said, citing social and emotional needs. 

School Committee Chairman Kyle Belanger and member Charles Miles both expressed discomfort with accelerating the back-to-school schedule, with Belanger stating that he has “deep concerns ... with any rush.”

Miles pointed to “a lot of disruption right now with schools that have opened and needed to close.” Locally, Amherst-Pelham and Northampton schools have needed to suspend or temporarily cancel in-person classes due to area COVID-19 metrics.

“We need to get our special populations back in, get those kids back in whose parents have critical child care needs, and continue the course as planned,” Miles said.

Vice Chairwoman Allison Schlachter said she was “really torn” on the issue and understood both sides.

“On the one hand, I know there’s a lot going on, and kids really do belong in school,” Schlachter said. Families can also choose to keep their children on remote learning regardless of the district’s plans, she said — and according to a survey sent out to families, 23% plan to stay remote for the whole year, while 31% said that they will stay remote for at least the next 45-day phase.

Schlachter said she shares concerns about students, staff and faculty becoming ill and pointed out that if too many teachers need to take time off due to possible COVID-19 symptoms, the schools could see staffing shortages, which would create “an inability to host children in the building.”

Schlachter also pointed out that rising COVID-19 cases across the state and the looming flu season on the horizon could create “a mess.”

Ultimately, Schlachter said she believes the district will need to rise to meet the challenges that arise from opening earlier or staying closed.

Member Allyson Garcia said that she was also “torn,” adding that she is concerned that middle school and high school students moving between classes will increase the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Although the committee did not reach an agreement on a return date for hybrid learning for the majority of students, members unanimously approved the return schedule for preschoolers, kindergartners, high-needs students and students from families with child care needs.

Under the district’s plans, elementary school students will be divided into two cohorts, one of which will meet in-person Monday and Tuesday and another that will meet Thursday and Friday. Both groups will learn remotely for the remainder of the week.

When middle schoolers and high schoolers return for hybrid learning, two cohorts will alternate between one week of remote learning and one week of in-person instruction.

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