Amherst pitches school shuffle, with higher grades in-person two days a week

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

Staff Writer
Published: 7/8/2020 1:15:03 PM

AMHERST — Limited classroom space in the Amherst Regional Middle and High school buildings means that even if in-person instruction resumes this fall, secondary students will likely continue doing remote learning during more than half of each week.

With the intention of keeping a 6-foot distance between desks — following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines rather than state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recommendations, which state that 3 feet of distance is acceptable — school administrators unveiled a space utilization plan this week for the six school buildings in Amherst and Pelham, with the most significant change being the move of fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms from Crocker Farm School to the middle school.

Superintendent Michael Morris presented the concepts at a joint meeting of the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham school committees Tuesday, in advance of two town hall forums for parents and guardians being held Thursday at noon and 5 p.m., via YouTube, to get feedback about how school reopenings might play out.

Under the current plans, and due to space limitations at both buildings, middle and high school students would get a minimum of two days of classroom instruction, with the possibility that 60% of their studies would be done online. Elementary students in Amherst and Pelham would get a minimum of four days of in-person classroom instruction.

Morris explained that in a 750-square-foot classroom, just 16 desks would fit, half the number allowed if following state guidance. But that would be safer for students, as well as staff. “There’s also a lot more teacher space,” Morris said.

Though the middle and high schools are large buildings, and accommodate students from Amherst, Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham, numerous classrooms will not be available for instruction because they don’t have windows and sufficient ventilation.

De-densifying plans

Only Crocker Farm, among the four Amherst and Pelham elementary schools, is complicated in terms of what Morris describes as “de-densifiying” the buildings to limit the spread of COVID-19. Being creative with space in that building, he said, is just not possible.

The 110 students projected to be in the fifth and sixth grades will get their own wing at the middle school, using seven classrooms in that building, rather than being at Crocker Farm.

Morris said a modular classroom for these students at Crocker Farm was not practical, after Amherst representative Kerry Spitzer wondered if that had been explored.

Also at the middle school, the art room and professional development center will become classrooms, but even with this added space it is not possible to fit all students into 20 classrooms. Morris said at most about 225 students would be allowed in the middle school building, or a little more than half of the anticipated enrollment.

Fort River School, with 78,864 square feet of space, will be able to accommodate the 18 classrooms it needs, said Principal Diane Chamberlain. The plan is to convert the “quads” into “duos,” or “halfsies,” by constructing permanent walls and removing partitions that normally separate the teaching spaces, and to convert the music and art rooms, and one of the cafeterias, into classrooms.

Chamberlain said the setup will allow the dual language Caminantes program to expand to first grade.

At Wildwood School, which is similar in size and set up to Fort River, Principal Nick Yaffe said there will be a similar creation of new classrooms, and the 21 classrooms needed will be able to fit in the building.

Finally, Pelham Elementary also has sufficient space for its students, with the fourth-grade classroom moving to the converted cafeteria, said Principal Leigh Whiting-Jones.

In the high school building, while there are not enough classrooms for daily in-person instruction of all students, those students who attend the Summit Academy program will be able to be present each day.

Morris said tents have been ordered for each of the six schools so that some instruction can be done outdoors.

Whether parents will be receptive to sending their students back to school this fall, and whether teachers will be comfortable with the arrangement, remains uncertain.

Prior to the presentation, Amherst parent Jeff Lee of South East Street told the committees that the rising caseloads of COVID-19 across the country means that remote learning, which took place from March through June, should continue exclusively.

Mick O’Connor, president of the Amherst Pelham Education Association, wrote in a statement to the committees that in-person learning should not resume and that the administrators and committees should “not allow any excuse to justify risks that may threaten the health or life of even one person as together we fight COVID-19.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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