Frontier Regional, Union 38 school committees review reopening plans 

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 7/21/2020 9:46:17 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Conway Grammar School kindergarten teacher Jeremy Brunaccioni usually spends this time of year speaking with other teachers about “How can we jazz up our butterfly unit?” or “What new Eric Carle book is out there?”

But with the COVID-19 pandemic inciting discussions on how to safely provide education in the fall, the ordinarily joyous conversations have changed, with new topics including where to buy scrubs, how to convert a cellar or garage into a quarantine room, and where to go to get a living will.

“I’m heartbroken over the past few weeks the topics that are coming up for other kindergarten teachers,” he said. “These are all things that I like to think of as not touching us, but they are.”

Brunaccioni was among the teachers and parents in the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts to express concern during school committee meetings last week over what an in-person return to education might look like.

“Teachers want to be back with their kids, but we are scared ... and we are concerned,” said Deerfield Elementary School teacher Jennifer Smith at a Union 38 Joint School Committee meeting. “I hope the School Committee thinks about … providing materials to protect us, providing testing to make sure people coming into the building are safe. We’re becoming front-line workers, which was not a job we signed up for, initially.”

The comments from teachers followed a presentation by Darius Modestow, superintendent for both school districts, of a draft plan for the return to school in the fall.

The plan, which was distributed to families in advance of the two meetings, includes three potential learning models: in-person, remote or a hybrid approach.

“We’ve asked for feedback as far as what we’ve sent out to the community,” Modestow said at Wednesday’s remote meeting, which was attended by more than 100 parents, teachers and community members. “We know the plan is not complete. ... It’s to get ideas going.”

He noted in particular that the Frontier and Union 38 school districts haven’t received guidance from the state in terms of bussing, as well as what to do if there is an outbreak in a school.

Three models

According to the plan, the in-person model outlines steps the schools will take at the elementary, middle and high school level to ensure social distancing is practiced. Modestow explained to school committee members that the districts are aiming for a 6-foot minimum, rather than the state’s 3-foot minimum.

Masks will be worn and “mask breaks” will be recommended, as will outdoor instruction when weather permits. Students will have their own material bins, to ensure materials aren’t shared between students.

The plan also addresses student grouping, or cohorts, at various levels, potentially labeling hallways for one-way traffic, and how timetables may be staggered to limit student contact when passing between classes.

At the elementary and middle school levels, the in-person model also calls for staggered entry of grades in the schools and shorter days at the beginning of the year to help orient students, family and staff members to the changes and new expectations.

The remote learning model “is designed specifically to respond to the needs of those students and families who are immunocompromised or would feel more comfortable with a remote learning plan,” according to the draft plan.

The plan states the districts are reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of the remote learning plan implemented in the spring.

“We were pushed over to remote learning over the course of a weekend,” said Sarah Mitchell, director of secondary education at Frontier Regional School, in reference to the transition from in-person learning to remote learning this spring. “We were just figuring out how to build the plane as we were flying it.”

Modestow said the districts have already purchased Schoology, a learning management system similar to Google Classroom.

In the hybrid model, students alternate between in-person and remote learning. The hybrid would also mean fewer students in the building at one time.

A number of different models are proposed. In one model, for example, students attend school in A/B cohorts, or every other day.

“There’s a lot of different models out there. ... We’re open to what that’s going to look like,” Modestow said. “It depends on what model we choose what that at-home is going to look like.”

Future discussions

Speaking on behalf of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC), Holly Johnson asked administrators and committee members to include SEPAC in the planning process.

“We are asking that you consider the added complexity for special educational students within all three models being proposed,” said Johnson, who has two daughters in elementary school and one at Frontier. “Special education students were left behind with the remote learning, and we cannot repeat those inequities in the fall.”

Special Education Director Karen Ferrandino said the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) put out new guidance earlier this month with respect to special education students, and in that guidance, districts are required to meet 100 percent of Individualized Education Program (IEPs) methods and implement them as they are, regardless of which plan is followed in the fall.

“What we’re doing as a district, and in the process of doing … is we are pulling together a special education strategic planning committee that will involve both elementary, middle school, high school special education teachers, some general education teachers and parents from the SEPAC.”

Modestow emphasized during the school committee meetings that the plan is in draft form. The districts will continue to refine the three models over the next few weeks. Modestow expects a vote to be taken by the school committees on which plan to pursue during the first week in August.

“If there’s anybody who can bring kids back to school and do it right and safe,” said David Sharp, vice chairman of the Deerfield School Committee, “it’s probably people in Franklin County and Berkshire County and a good part of Hampshire County.”

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