State OKs 5 days of remote learning for South Hadley High School

  • South Hadley High School. Sept. 2, 2021. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/14/2021 9:08:06 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — Amid a weekslong mold infestation at South Hadley High School, students will begin classes Thursday after the state’s education department approved five days of remote learning for the town’s high schoolers.

The state’s Department of Secondary and Elementary Education, or DESE, on Tuesday told town officials that it will allow five days of remote learning to count toward the 180 days of learning that schools are required to complete.

Massachusetts is one of just a few states that has prohibited remote learning this school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring all students to attend school in person.

Mold was found across much of the high school building the day before classes were supposed to start on Sept. 1. Since then, school leaders have worked to begin remediation efforts and negotiate with the state over starting classes remotely, just as students did for much of the past year and a half during the pandemic.

High schoolers have now missed 10 days of school as a result, which will have to be tacked on to the end of the year.

In a phone interview Tuesday, School Committee Chairwoman Allison Schlachter said district officials asked state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley for more than five days, but that they were grateful for his decision to grant those five days because he was hesitant to approve any remote days at all.

Schlachter said the bulk of the mold remediation work is scheduled for next week, so the district intends to use its five remote learning days from this Thursday through next Wednesday.

“We have to get our kids connected to teachers and connected to online learning as soon as possible, and so we’re going to go for it on Thursday,” she said.

Schlachter said state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, have worked closely with the school district to appeal to DESE to allow for remote learning.

“I think if not for the steadfast and strong advocacy from Jo Comerford and Dan Carey we would not have gotten this pushed through, so we are very grateful,” she said.

Schlachter also praised new schools Superintendent Jahmal Mosley for his leadership during the crisis, saying he has worked tirelessly behind the scenes.

South Hadley Public Schools has contracted with the company ServiceMaster Recovery Management to clean up the mold in 69 classrooms and many other rooms and hallways in the high school. The company provided an estimate for that work, which does not include remediation in the gymnasium and auditorium, of $767,928.

At Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, Town Administrator Michael Sullivan proposed using $500,000 of South Hadley’s $5.4 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, allocated to the town under the American Rescue Plan Act, to pay for the remediation. The Select Board unanimously approved that request.

Sullivan said that as part of efforts to improve ventilation in the high school to combat the spread of the coronavirus, state Department of Public Health encouraged schools to open their ventilation system’s dampers — moveable plates that regulate airflow — to 80%.

That, however, brought in humid air and possibly spores, Sullivan said. This summer was the fourth-wettest ever recorded in Massachusetts, according to federal climate data. Sullivan said the dampers are typically set to an optimum 35% opening, and that they have been restored to that setting.

Northampton Public Schools also faced mold issues to start the school year, which school officials there also attributed to increased ventilation to prevent coronavirus infection. Middle and high school students there had their first day of classes delayed for one day after mold was discovered on some surfaces in six classrooms.

Sullivan said that state Department of Public Health officials visited South Hadley High School recently to review remediation efforts, and that they said the town is not alone.

“They said it’s a growing problem,” he said.

In 2019, Town Meeting approved nearly $1 million in cuts to the South Hadley schools budget amid a funding gap driven largely by contractually obligated pay raises for school employees and a combination of rising special education and transportation costs. Among the positions cut was a facilities director for the schools.

Select Board Chairman Jeff Cyr noted Tuesday that South Hadley does have a townwide facilities director whose position is fully funded and has responsibility over all town buildings, including the schools. Sullivan added that the facilities manager is not at each building all the time, and often relies on staff to relay information.

Sullivan cautioned against trying to lay blame for the crisis, stressing that all town officials and residents want to resolve the problem and get kids back to school.

Those were sentiments that Schlachter, the School Committee chairwoman, shared on Tuesday. She said that unlike some of the other emergencies recently amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which have become polarized amid a contentious political environment, town leaders, lawmakers and community members have been able to work together toward a mutually agreed upon goal of getting students back for their first day of school.

“This is a very stressful time but it was so meaningful and it was so much more bearable because there was really a sense of community here,” she said. “This was a crisis that brought us together.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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