Amherst, Pelham school committees share back-to-school priorities

  • Children board buses at Wildwood School in Amherst. JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/10/2020 2:10:21 PM

AMHERST — School days will likely be shorter in the fall, and most students and staff will be required to wear masks or face coverings during in-person instruction, though distance learning is expected to continue to be crucial at both the elementary and secondary levels, according to school officials.

During two town halls Thursday afternoon with School Superintendent Michael Morris, school staff, and members of the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham School Committees, parents and guardians were able to ask a series of questions about what the fall semester will look like for their students.

The sessions came in advance of the committees approving a priorities document that will provide guidance for the reopenings of the elementary and regional schools.

The three primary goals embedded in the priorities document are protecting staff and student safety, maintaining a 6-foot distance between students and teachers during in-person learning, and making sure the best education is offered for both in-school and distance learning.

Regional School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said the committees are considering adopting this document Tuesday, which will allow Morris, administrators and teachers to finalize learning and instructional models for the fall.

Then, the following week, the committees will be presented a first look at those models.

McDonald said the committees are relying on the current understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic and the situation in the region and in the state.

When putting together the models, Morris said he intends to follow federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“I’m committed to following the CDC guidelines that were released before,” Morris said, adding that he would prefer to not see them weakened due to political pressure.

For both students and staff, there will be less time spent in the classroom, with the expectation that the days will start later. Keeping children in school for fewer hours will also help them build up a tolerance for wearing masks.

Morris said he doesn’t imagine a full five days of teachers and children in classrooms, even in the best of circumstances, and that distance learning will be necessary. 

“The short story is that no one will be forced to go to school,” Morris said.

Because of what Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling calls a “seismic change to learning,” there is urgency to make sure staff can train and effectively implement both remote and synchronous learning models.

“We do not want to set up our teachers to fail; we don’t want to set up our students to fail,” Demling said.

McDonald said committee members want to see remote instruction greatly improved from what was implemented in the spring.

Simon Leutz, head of the social studies department at the high school, said his concern with emphasizing remote learning is how to translate the usual classroom environment dynamics and engagement to online instruction, when small group discussion and hands-on projects can’t be done.

“In my own sense of good teaching and what practices look like in a classroom, I think we’re really going to have to be inventive and lean on distance learning in this case,” Leutz said.

Tiffany Thibodeau, a math teacher at the middle school, said she is trying to figure out how to make a robust distance learning curriculum that can also be used in the classroom.

“We really do have to get creative about how to be able do that in the classroom, and rely more on technology maybe more than we would have in a typical school year,” Thibodeau said.

Jill Conselino, nurse manager for the school district, said though students in second grade and up will be required to have their mouths and noses covered, there will be opportunities to take off their masks or other facial coverings.

The schools won’t be doing temperature checks as not everyone experiences fever symptoms with COVID-19. Instead, the district will require parents to check for symptoms with their children.

“We will not be doing any type of physical screening,” Conselino said.

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