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Pittsfield Schools Look at Education Options for Next School Year

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School officials are leaning toward opening school in the fall using a mix of remote and in-person learning.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless outlined Wednesday what education could look like next school year depending on the state of the pandemic and noted according to conversations with the state education officials, they will likely reopen with a hybrid model.
"We do understand that everyone is on pins and needles about next year and anybody that tells you for certain what next year is going to look like is telling you something that isn't true," McCandless said. "None of us know for sure what next year is going to look like and you will see what planning looks like for several different scenarios."
He referred to information he received from the Department of Education that seemed to favor this hybrid educational plan.
"This seems to me the direction ... the commonwealth is marching toward and we await guidance in the next week or two on what that looks like," McCandless said.   
The superintendent said this could take many forms but at its core will mix remote learning with classroom learning perhaps with rotating schedules (week on/week off or day on/day off) in efforts to keep class sizes down. 
This arrangement would allow students who need to report to school daily that option but would continue to put stress on families tasked with administering education.
He did note most likely personal protective equipment would be required in the classroom and this could become expensive or difficult to acquire if PPE are in short supply.
He said much of this would have to be worked out through negotiation with collective bargaining units and noted some staff may still not feel comfortable returning to school at all. This could be the same case for students.
McCandless said the other option is to just open their doors and return to school business as usual.
"This seems highly unlikely to me if not entirely impossible," he said. 
He said this could create a greater demand for PPE for all students and staff that may not be affordable or even possible.
He said it would also require the district to be flexible with students and staff with health sensitivities or health sensitive people in their home. Also, many may not feel comfortable coming to work.
"This would require massive flexibility on our part as employers and as operators of a school district," he said. "Even if we were to open full stop we know that we will have families that will say, 'that is good for your kid but not for mine' and we think those families deserve that flexibility."  
Because of this they most likely still have to provide remote learning plans for these individuals and families.
The final option is to just continue what they are doing with remote learning. 
"We have been working with this solution with mixed results since the day we closed," he said. "The good news is ... we have learned many lessons and we are much better at it now."
He said this would put the most pressure on families who will have to continue administering their children's education.
McCandless said any decision would be guided by health data and local and state leadership.
"We are not among those people that say no matter what we have to reopen because 100,000 plus people have died from this virus," he said. "Personally and professionally I think we need to wait and see what the numbers are and what we are able to do."
No matter what it is decided, McCandless said it was important that each student has access to a laptop and is ready for any scenario. 
"We believe that all of these scenarios require two things: access to a laptop ... and ideally internet service," he said. "That we are struggling with." 
Even if the schools are able to open they may have to change direction mid-year and return to remote learning. School-issued Chromebooks will continue to be distributed to make sure every student has access to a computer.
Internet access remains another issue and McCandless said many students do not have an internet connection. If remote learning continues to be the standard, the district will need to find a way to provide internet.
A committee has been formed to compile a list of students without a connection. Officials are also in contact with community organizations and internet providers to find solutions and ways to legally pay for internet service for those without during the pandemic.
The use of mobile hotspots were explored but deemed not financially or logistically viable. Expanding internet service around schools is also being looked into. McCandless said, optimally, the state would treat the internet as any other utility. 
In other business, McCandless said the City Council will review the fiscal 2020 education budget Thursday night and that he has never attended a budget hearing where he did not know how much state aid the district will receive.
The School Committee adopted a level-funded budget of $65 million that relies on level Chapter 70 funding. McCandless said this is possibly the best-case scenario and they need to prepare for deeper reductions in aid — possibly up to 10 percent or around $5 million.
Non-renewal notices have been given to 70 teachers on one-year contracts and later this week he anticipates another 50 or 60 notices will be handed out first-year educators.
He said if state aid comes in as hoped for, employees could be retained.
McCandless said preparations for worst-case scenario means another dozen or so notices will be delivered to administrative employees and teachers. 
He did not expect the city to make up this deficit and put the onus on the state and federal government to provide the funding needed to educate students. 
"We are not even sure how we would operate school," he said. "We do not know what Chapter 70 is going to look like ... the only thing we do know is that we will have 5,000 wonderful young people and their families looking to us in August or September."


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