Amherst school committees instruct superintendent to plan in-person learning

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Staff Writer
Published: 3/4/2021 7:35:46 PM

AMHERST — Students throughout the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools should have an opportunity to attend school in person starting in April.

The three school committees Wednesday voted unanimously to instruct Superintendent Michael Morris to develop a plan in which “all students who want it” will be able to finish the school year with instruction at the elementary schools, the middle school and the high school.

Allison McDonald, chairwoman of the Amherst and Regional school committees, said the votes restate a commitment to provide the right education for all students and to give parents and guardians the choice of continuing remote instruction, which has been the main method of learning for most students for about a year, or to have their children return to classrooms for the first time since March 2020.

“We’re ready to make this move,” McDonald said.

McDonald said there is an understanding that many students are struggling educationally in the remote model.

The votes came as Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the state would be in compliance with a goal set by President Joe Biden to offer all teachers, staff and other school employees their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by April 1. In addition, state education officials have set an objective of having in-person learning in all districts this spring.

Under the plan, all students from kindergarten through second grade would be able to be in school buildings for classes no later than April 5, third through sixth graders by April 12 and middle and high schoolers would have some form of in-person by April 26.

Morris will develop the plan and have the full involvement of the Amherst Pelham Education Association and consult with health professionals, including Amherst’s health director.

The youngest students, including preschoolers at Crocker Farm School, have been back in school buildings this week being taught by teachers who have voluntarily returned. These lower grades were also briefly in school buildings last fall until health metrics embedded in a memorandum of agreement between the district and union rose above the 28 cases per 100,000 residents in the Pioneer Valley. Exceeding that threshold triggered a return to remote learning.

Middle school teacher Claire Cocco issued a statement on behalf of the union’s executive board that it has a group of educators already working on developing ideas for effective in-person learning.

“We urge our administration to include educator voice in the steps moving forward and provide clear expectations and protocols around safety, for both students and staff,” Cocco wrote in an email.

Though the memorandum shows that health metrics are not low enough, McDonald earlier in the week said the state has ruled that such agreements are not binding.

She pointed to a state arbitrator who dismissed charges brought by the Melrose Education Association that its district violated an agreement to return to fully remote learning if COVID-19 metrics worsened. Department of Labor Relations investigator Gail Sorokoff, though, said a switch of learning models between in-person and remote isn’t one that could be collectively bargained.

“Some managerial decisions cannot be delegated by public employers or be made the subject of collective bargaining,” Sorokoff wrote.

McDonald added that other aspects of the memorandum, such as keeping students six feet apart, wearing personal protective equipment such as masks and cleaning protocols and air handling numbers, remain in effect.

Morris informed the committees there will be challenges. Having some students remote and others in the building could necessitate hiring more staff to do instruction at the elementary schools.

At the middle school, students might be there two days a week, but that will depend on how many are willing to come back. At the high school, the variety of courses could be limited to restrict the mixing of students.

William Kaizen, a parent of a kindergartner and fourth grader at Wildwood School, said he understands this was a difficult decision, but a necessary one that adheres to keeping teachers, students and staff safe.

“This return to in-person learning will give kids a much-needed opportunity to have some time together with their peers and teachers this year,” Kaizen said. “So many families have been desperate for this.”

In fact, many of the written comments submitted to the committees have shown that.

“Though it’s late in the game, I’m happy to see the committee making a decision that upholds the best interests of students and follows evidence-based science,” wrote Susan Countryman, a parent of a second grader and high school senior.

Ali Ingallis, a parent of a first grader, wrote that children shouldn’t have to wait until April. Like other parents, Ingallis asked for a sped-up timeline.

“With the news that teachers will have the almost immediate option of vaccination, any further delay or modification of children being in school is null and void,” Ingallis wrote

Kaizen said Amherst should not be an outlier when Northampton and Belchertown schools are among those similar districts with in-person education.

“Having dates certain in the motion means that the school committee will keep the superintendent on track and get kids back into the buildings as soon as possible,” Kaizen said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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