NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The School Committee on Tuesday rejected a hybrid school reopening model to vote 3-2 to go full remote.
The decision to start school with the remote option was apparently influenced by a letter the School Committee members received from the North Adams Teachers Association expressing concern over re-entering the schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Committee member Tara Jacobs said she was not comfortable potentially exposing staff to the novel coronavirus in motioning to go with the remote option to start and later transition to a hybrid model.
"There's no good scenario but the decision to open the school and have someone dying or having health conditions for the rest of their life ... ," she said, motioning to start the school year remotely.
Jacobs found support from committee members James Holmes, a former teacher, and Ian Bergeron.
"We are operating here pre-negotiations, labor has spoken. They feel remote is the safe path," Bergeron said. "I don't think we can ignore that. I'm surprised and overjoyed to find there is support for remote."
Superintendent Barbara Malkas last week had presented a detailed hybrid option, along with in-person and remote, based on data and capabilities of the school system. (Students and teachers who did not want to attend in person would have the option to do remote.)
She cautioned that the district's Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund monies could be affected if the protective gear, cleaning solutions, masks and other related equipment weren't needed. Positions were also brought back in June's level-funded budget based on the assumption that more teaching assistants and cafeteria workers would be neeed within the schools.
"The budget reflects the staffing for in-person," Malkas said. "We would have to take a long hard look at the positions we put back in, we'd have to look at the ESSER money."
She pointed to the new metrics announced by Gov. Charlie Baker and Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday. The state is using the number of new positive cases per 100,000 population to measure the prevalence of the disease. More than 318 communities have fewer than four average daily cases per 100,000 and almost all Berkshire County communities have had less than five cases total over the past two weeks.
That puts it in the "unshaded," or white, designation with an expectation by DESE of using a full in-person or, if extenuating circumstances, a hybrid model.
"All of Berkshire County is considered unshaded ... according to the commissioner, because we are in this area, because of this infection rate, we should be considering full in-person or hybrid," Malkas said.
That was stressed by Baker as well during his daily briefing on Tuesday.
"If you're in a green or a white community I can't imagine a good reason not to go back full time or in some sort of hybrid because for intents and purposes you meet all the marks that are being used across the country and across New England to make decisions about whether it's safe to go to school," the governor had said, adding that guidance was coming from the Department of Public Health and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The superintendent said she has been in close touch with the city's Director of Health Michale Moore on understanding the best ways to provide safe learning. North Adams has a COVID-19 rate of 0.6, well below the 5 percent that had originally been the state goal. That's compared to Georgia at 10.9 and the state of Florida at 17.2.
Jacobs said the commissioner told the Massachusetts Association of School Committees that he would support the decisions made by local school districts. Bernard said he had also been on that call and one with the Massachusetts Municipal Association but "no one would define extenuating circumstance or expectations."
Malkas said one extenuating circumstance could be the 6-foot distancing, which the district had agreed to with teachers' union, although the state was setting the minimum at 3 feet. A 6-foot social distance was not possible with the full in-school model.
In the hybrid form, the student body would be separated into A and B cohorts with each spending four half days in class, switching between morning and afternoon and doing remote on Wednesdays. This would allow for a deep cleaning with a fogger twice a week. With fewer students, they would be able to maintain a 6-foot distance and efforts are being put in place to ensure that the schools could switch to remote. School officials are anticipating that remote learning may happen if cases of COVID-19 begin to rise.
The superintendent said starting school with the hybrid model might be the only opportunity to get children into the classroom because once the windows were closed and the cold sets in, there would likely be a level contagion that will mean shifting to remote.
Bernard, in summing up last week's discussion, reminded the committee that voting on the intended reopening plan came with the "understanding that intended does not mean that we do not have the ability to adjust and adapt, going forward, and understanding that everything that we do will also be subject to negotiation with the North Adams Teachers Association."
The committee last week had held off on voting so as to get feedback from two parent presentations and because the state had extended the deadline from Aug. 11 to Aug. 14.
Malkas said there was a "very high level of participation" in the presentations and that a FAQ had been posted on the district's website to answer questions the staff couldn't get to during those sessions.
The district had also put out another survey and, by 11 a.m. on Tuesday, had received 1,036 responses representing the same number of students. Total enrollment is 1,423.
Those responses showed a preference for a hybrid model, with 63 percent choosing that option and 37 selecting remote. In answer to questions, Malkas said it appeared that the parents were more likely to select classroom settings for younger students and remote for high school, and that that seems to be the norm across that state.
About half of those responding said they had a device for remote learning, almost 20 percent said they were using one loaned by the school system in the spring and 30 percent, or about 300 students, did not have a device. Malkas said the school district has purchased 400 Chromebooks using grants and emergency funding as well as purchasing hotspots and boosting the wifi signals at the schools. Only one student could not be served because the student's location in Southern Vermont could not support a signal.
The highest responses came from Drury High and the lowest from Brayton Elementary. The superintendent said the administration is following up with phone calls to those who have not yet responded.
Malkas also shared some comments from parents saying they couldn't teach their children math at home, "We are terrified with either choice," and one that their student "desperately needs the social connection and the direction that only comes from the school environment ... this past spring was a disaster."
Committee members were concerned that even with the individual option for remote, it wouldn't help the support staff who would have no option but to be in the schools.
Municipal buildings are still closed, noted member Heather Boulger, yet they were asking staff and students to return to school. "This is just an impossible situation."
Malkas said she was aware of the letter from NATA but said the union had applauded the idea of in-person instruction earlier.
"I serve the will of the committee," she said, but added, "my recommendation is you become cognizant of who you serve."
Two-thirds of the families — their constituents — had indicated they preferred at least some in-person learning, the superintendent reminded them.
Bernard, chairman of the committee, said he was guided by the voice of their constituents and while some wished to be fully remote there was a "countervailing force" that is ramping up for school reopening.
"This is a highly charged issue, this is a highly emotional issue," he said, offering the suggestion of postponing the vote until Friday morning.
Bergeron said he wasn't comfortable with a three-member majority making the decision. Member Karen Bond was not able to attend and the committee has a vacancy that won't be filled until next week.
"We're putting our kids at risk until it becomes too risky," he then said. "As long as the committee is meeting remotely, how can we say it's safe for our children?"
Jacobs was asked if she wanted to rescind her motion to delay the vote; she declined. Holmes and Bergeron joined her in voting yeah; Bernard and Boulger voted against.
The committee also voted unanimously to submit reopening plans for full in-person, remote and hybrid version of both to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as required. DESE has already previewed the options developed by the school administration and had not raised any questions, Malkas said.
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