Amherst school reopening plans stall over safety concerns

  • Fort River School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/26/2020 6:57:20 PM

AMHERST — Worries about the safety of teachers and staff in school buildings and whether there are sufficient protections for them and their families are stalling adoption of a planning document to guide the reopening of Amherst elementary schools this fall.

While the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham school committees have adopted two “framework for planning” documents that will give direction to Superintendent Michael Morris and other administrators for fully in person, fully remote or hybrid models of education, the Amherst School Committee remains deadlocked on whether the framework for “support for staff” provides enough accommodation to those who will do classroom instruction.

The five-member panel, with member Ben Herrington not participating due to being a school employee, is divided on how to change the document’s language after concerns were raised through feedback from the Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers and paraprofessionals, that not enough is being done for safety in maximizing in-person learning.

Committee member Kerry Spitzer said the union has valid concerns and she wants to make sure teachers don’t have to rent a trailer, as some medical professionals have done, so they are not bringing COVID-19 home to their families.

“I want staff to feel like we have their back, and I want students to feel that way, too,” Spitzer said.

Joining her was committee member Heather Lord, who said her said biggest issue is that staff doesn’t feel comfortable.

“I can’t in good faith make a choice without listening and sitting down at the table and doing some due diligence,” Lord said.

But Chairwoman Allison McDonald said the framework document is nonbinding and is just strong guidance for how to care for students and staff, and delaying its adoption will have repercussions in district planning and for families who are anxious to know what is happening this fall.

“We are a public school and we need to be making decisions for students first,” McDonald said, adding that the committee can’t do any less in supporting free, public education.

As written, the “support for staff” document offers to “provide reasonable accommodations for staff who have underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19,” as well as accommodating staff “for any reason,” and will also “work with the leadership of its collective bargaining units to try to address other points of concern to staff.”

McDonald said students and staff will not be forced into buildings if the public health metrics say not to. She worries about deferring too much to staff.

“We’ve been accused in the past of running a school for the purpose of adults,” McDonald said.

Committee member Peter Demling said he feels the schools already have the most accommodating plan for staff, and that it’s unfortunate that there has been so much pushback at the end of the process.

“If we tell the district that you have to accommodate staff preference, then the district cannot reliably staff onsite learning in any equitable manner,” Demling said.

Demling said collective bargaining will deal with the specifics of various return-to-school protocols, with the School Committee’s role to set the model for how education will be provided.

“But we cannot offer a guarantee to all to work remotely when we know that positions are needed on site for the instructional model we’ve identified as appropriate under current COVID conditions,” Demling said.

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


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