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Mount Greylock Interim Superintendent: Health Plays 'Highest Role' in Reopening Plan

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Amie Hane, chair of the school district's special Parent Advisory Council, addresses the School Committee on Thursday evening.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Mount Greylock Regional School District officials Thursday sought to allay fears that the district's schools will reopen under any scenario where safety is not the first priority.
Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam walked the School Committee through the administration's planning process for the start of school in September during the body's Zoom-based meeting.
"First off, we want to make sure that medical and health play the highest role in our decisions," Putnam said. "We are committed to protecting anyone with comorbidities. We are committed to, basically, creating the conditions for and ensuring that there is social distancing that protects staff and students alike. We are committed to creating a norm of mask-wearing and hand-washing.
"Those are the concerns that are going into the developing of any of the plans."
The notion of a "cost-benefit analysis" approach to reopening the schools during the COVID-19 pandemic raised eyebrows throughout the Lanesborough-Williamstown district when it was suggested at the School Committee's June meeting.
At that time, committee member Steven Miller hinted at a more adventurous approach, invoking a quote attributed to John A. Shedd: "A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."
The image of taking students' and staff members' health out for a spin did not sit well with some members of the community.
The district's Parent Advisory Council, which advises the School Committee on matters related to special education, sent the committee a letter which PAC Chair Amie Hane read into the record on Thursday evening.
"As outlined in the [PAC's] advisory, we know children do contract COVID-19," Hane said. "Massachusetts has had over 6,000 children/youth test positive for the virus and Florida is now reporting over 7,000 positive pediatric cases.
"The [PAC] foremost seeks assurance that those inclined to promote a petition to forgo social distancing and masks in Mass public schools — one of whom is on this committee and another on an educational subcommittee — kindly reconsider and take seriously the public health guidance issued by the [Department of Elementary and Secondary Education], the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and the [American Academy of Pediatrics]."
Hane said that she had been told by members of the committee that Miller's voice is just one on a seven-person panel, but, she said, "this is one voice too many."
She noted that many of the children in families represented by the PAC are "medically complex," with the kinds of comorbidities that put them at greater risk to the novel coronavirus.
Hane said that since the June School Committee meeting, she has heard from members of the community that students who are more vulnerable to the virus "should stay home and learn remotely."
"[W]e need you to demand more as elected officials of a public school during a public health crisis," Hane said. "Suggestions that some are "strong" to this virus while others are ‘weak' creates stigma. Stigma is a well-established barrier to access to health care and has the potential here to serve as a barrier to accessing school. 
"The School Committee sets the tone that could increase or decrease said stigma. In the case of June 11, I would say it increased the felt sense of stigma from families who have medically complicated children and other vulnerabilities. Additionally, even silently allowing banter that disregards public health has the potential to create a divide among us based on health status. This has implications not only for stigma and marginalization for individuals, but also for school culture, potentially creating a culture of division among our students."
But Hane's was not the only point of view presented to the School Committee on Thursday.
Luana Maroja, an associate professor of biology at Williams College, told the committee through an email submitted for public comment that it should follow the guidelines circulated by DESE, which, among other things, set a minimum social distance of 3 feet for classrooms — half the 6-foot distance promoted throughout the rest of the commonwealth.
"... I have been following the scientific literature closely," Maroja said. " It is now clear that kids are not only at a lower risk of getting a COVID infection, are at virtually no risk of death and, most important for the issue at hand, kids are not good at transmitting the disease. Furthermore, children might face serious psychological risks if required to socially isolate for long.
"The previous closure has clearly shown us how detrimental it was for children, especially weaker students and those from poorer backgrounds and especially Hispanic and Black students. In the Boston district 20% of the students never logged into the online system and, among minorities, this rate was 25%. If we continue with any kind of remote learning, we will be reducing the opportunities and chances in life for our most vulnerable and at-risk students."
Williamstown residents Darel and Kelly Paul went a step further in their comments to the School Committee, writing in their email that the district should not "make the perfect the enemy of the good" and not "fixate" on safety protocols.
"We appreciate that the School Committee must pursue not only the goal of educating our
children this fall, but also the goal of keeping them and our school staff safe," the Pauls wrote. "Yet these two goals must be clearly ordered. Our primary goal is and must be education. Our secondary goal is and must be safety. Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics ‘strongly advocate[d] that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.' This must be our position as well."
The Paul's underlined the words "secondary" and "primary" in their email.
In the June 25 AAP memo the Pauls referenced, the full sentence they quoted reads, "With the above principles in mind, the AAP strongly advocates … "
Among the principles referenced in the first half of that sentence: "School policies should be guided by supporting the overall health and well-being of all children, adolescents, their families, and their communities."
A member of one of the committees the district created this summer to look at re-opening said her working group is looking at a "HyFlex" model that delivers all instruction in person and remotely.
And the Mount Greylock Parent Advisory Group for reopening wants the district to go above and beyond the DESE guidelines, Julia Bowen said.
"We were pleased that Dr. Putnam was in support of our ideas and want to share two key principles from our proposal with the School Committee and the broader public," she said. "Key principle No. 1 is that we believe health and safety need to be paramount in any decisions made. We believe that includes 6 feet of social distancing, not the 3-foot minimum recommended by DESE. And that is especially true given the recent updates from the [World Health Organization]. Six feet may not be enough. We'd like to keep it at least to 6 feet."
Bowen said her committee contends that face coverings need to be mandatory and that the air filtration systems in each of the district's three schools should be checked before the start of school and maintained once the doors open.
"Our second key principle is that after ensuring the health and safety of our children and staff, we believe the academic program needs to be consistently strong throughout the year, regardless of the changing dynamic of the pandemic," she said. "We advocate for a model that allows for seamless transition between in-person, hybrid learning and remote learning as needs arise.
"We understand the challenges of suddenly moving to remote learning this spring, but we expect that with this much time for preparation, the program will be significantly stronger this fall."
Several members of the School Committee took time to express their understanding of the concerns expressed by the PAC and commitment to serving the needs of special education students.
"I would like to start by stating the following: The role and responsibilities of the School Committee are to hire the superintendent, to set policy and oversee the financial budget," Chair Christina Conry said. "We do not deliver education. That is the role of the superintendent and the administration. However, I support starting every reopening discussion with what is the safest and in the best interest of every child, recognizing that not every plan is a one-sized-fits-all, I believe we need to lead with health and safety first."
Jamie Art agreed.
"The School Committee absolutely expects that the school will deliver the education that it's required to deliver under law and that we should do more than the minimum to make sure that our schools are both safe and also delivering high quality education to the children and families," he said.
Miller, whose June 11 comments drew a rebuke from the members of the PAC and others, encouraged anyone interested in talking about reopening plans to participate in a Tuesday afternoon meeting of the School Committee's Education Subcommittee, which he chairs.
"We encourage everybody to come," Miller said. "If you're not able to come, please watch the videos later. Please reach out to us. We have been talking about what we need for all of our students. Again, if there are materials you think we need to read, please pass them on to me. … Documents that you think have valuable studies we need to see, we would love to get. Just like we hope you would read the other studies that other people find and put up there."
In other business on Thursday, the School Committee learned that the district, which soon may be looking for a new superintendent, also received notice from its director of academic technology that she will be leaving the district.
And Conry reminded residents of a July 21, 5 p.m. deadline to submit signed nomination papers to run for a seat on the School Committee in the November election.
Prospective candidates need to obtain papers from the town hall in either Lanesborough or Williamstown and get signatures from at least 45 residents of the two towns (45 total signatures, which can include 100 percent from one town or any other mix). Town clerks recommend that would-be candidates obtain more than the minimum number of signatures in case some cannot be certified.
Editor's note: The writer of this story, who has covered the Mount Greylock Regional School District for eight years, has a child in the district who is on a 504 Plan. 

Tags: COVID-19,   MGRSD,   school reopening,   

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Williamstown Holiday Walk Weekend Returns Friday

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

The Holiday Walk features a variety of activities, sales and raffles. 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The 40th annual Holiday Walk is bigger than ever, with even more opportunities to ring in the season — in and out of Williamstown.
The three-day celebration gets underway on Friday and includes a jam–packed schedule Saturday that begins in the neighboring town of Hancock and ends in the city of North Adams.
"There's a ton going on in the region the next couple of weeks," Williamstown Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Susan Briggs said this week. "I was just on a call talking about that. Berkshire County likes to celebrate our holidays, and there are only a couple of weekends to do it.
"It's a busy time."
Falling each year just after Thanksgiving and before Williams College turns its attention to final exams, Holiday Walk is one of the signature events of the Williamstown Chamber.
And this year, organizers made a slight tweak to one of Holiday Walk's longest standing traditions: the Reindog Parade.
"The parade is an hour earlier," Briggs said. "Judging is at 1:30, and the parade will be at 2."
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