Some students to return to Amherst elementary schools in March

  • Children board buses Tuesday at Wildwood School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/17/2021 1:41:00 PM

AMHERST — Only a few in-person classes will be able to resume at Amherst elementary schools next month, while instruction for students at Amherst Regional Middle and High schools will remain entirely remote, according to an educational plan announced Tuesday by Superintendent Michael Morris.

Morris told a joint meeting of the Amherst, Pelham and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees that, based on surveys of educators about their willingness to voluntarily return, some classrooms at Crocker Farm and Wildwood elementary can have teachers and students starting either March 1 or by mid-March.

But with fewer than one in five teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff who are part of the Amherst Pelham Education Association saying they would voluntarily return to school buildings for in-person instruction next month, remote learning will continue at Fort River and Pelham elementary schools and the regional schools, including the specialized Summit Academy, where secondary students from Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett are educated.

“All of this is imperfect, but I didn’t want to have perfect be the enemy of progress,” Morris said.

Specifics of the plan are still being worked out and Morris acknowledged that he wants to stay vague about which staff members are returning. Still, he expected families of children who would be offered the opportunity to come back after nearly a year in a remote setting, including the youngest and highest-needs students who went to schools briefly in October, would be contacted by the end of this school vacation week.

Survey results

The school committees for the region, Amherst and Pelham schools gave Morris instructions in January to develop a proposal for in-person learning in which teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff could, on their own, decide to be back in schools. Such a plan is also to be guided by advice from local health professionals consulted by Morris.

Planning hinged on a survey of all members of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association. Overall, 91 of the 428 respondents, or 21%, said they would be willing to voluntarily return. Almost all of the remaining respondents would not. Those teachers who voluntarily return would do so even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to exceed the health metrics, in a memorandum of agreement between the teachers union and the school committees, that trigger remote learning. The agreement set a threshold of 28 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents on a seven-day rolling average.

Morris said at Crocker Farm the preschool program and four primary classroom grades will be able to have in-person instruction beginning March 1, then an intermediate classroom will join them March 15.

This is based on the school personnel there having the most favorable responses to the surveys among all school buildings, with 29 of the 77 staff members, or almost 38% of those responding, agreeing to return voluntarily, including nine classroom and special education teachers. Many of those are part of the preschool program.

At Wildwood, five classrooms spread from kindergarten through sixth grade will be in person by mid-March. There, 16 of 76 staff said they would come back voluntarily, including eight classroom and special education teachers.

Elsewhere, though, there will be no in-person learning. Morris acknowledged an equity issue will exist since not all children will have an equal opportunity to be invited back to classrooms.

For example, just nine of 73 educators would return voluntarily at Fort River, and of these only three classroom and special education teachers.

“At Fort River, we don’t have sufficient staff to open the building,” he said, adding that is also the case at the middle and high schools, and Pelham Elementary.

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