WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In the Old Testament it says, "a little child shall lead them."
In the Mount Greylock Regional School District, the kids are up to that leadership role.
"As [Lanesborough Elementary School Principal Nolan Pratt] said, our students are probably the number one reason why we are actually maintaining safety," Williamstown Elementary Principal Kristen Thompson told the School Committee on Monday night. "They are maintaining their social distancing, they're sanitizing, and you should see how quickly they're able to come into the building now. They know if they're on the list or they're not on the list, and they shoot right through, get their hand sanitizer, and they're on their way. The day starts.
"I'm really proud of them for that and for our staff for making this process an everyday routine and streamlining it."
Thompson, Pratt and Mount Greylock Regional School Principal Jacob Schutz each told the committee that the school year is going well and that students and staff have adjusted to the hybrid instruction model brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Students are acting very safe," Pratt said. "They wear their masks all the time. It's amazing to see. I know there was a concern early in the school year that 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds wouldn't be able to wear a mask. They do a great job for the time they are in the building. They practice social distancing, and if they get too close, they're quickly redirected and they know what to do.
"They want to be here, and they're taking all the correct steps to stay here."
New Superintendent Jason ""Jake McCandless told the School Committee that his introductory tour of the district's three schools allowed him to see firsthand teachers successfully teaching to both students in the room and students at home following the lesson remotely.
He said the district is dedicated to "three pillars" that define the district's work during the pandemic: the social/emotional/academic wellness of students, the physical and mental health of staff and the health and safety of the community.
McCandless recognized the fact that the U.S. is approaching 260,000 deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and that number includes 10,000 Massachusetts residents. But he pointed out that there are other risks facing students.
"Children and young people need in-person school," McCandless said.
He cited the Boston-based Parabola Project's list of threats facing young people during the pandemic: nutritional insecurity, loss of parental employment, lack of access to essential services, reduced detection of child abuse and neglect, social and emotional impacts and the loss of learning and the creation of learning gaps.
"Given all of this and given our delicate balancing act that we're all doing as individuals, communities, families and organizations, I do want to share with you tonight what we're thinking about here in the Mount Greylock Regional School District central office," McCandless said. "Primarily, we're thinking about two things: What can we do to better support student and safety and mitigate COVID transmission risks in our buildings right now and in the future. Secondly, how can we best support students academically, socially and emotionally if and when we need to move to a remote model."
On the physical safety front, the district installed MERV 13 air filters in all three schools, continues to talk about ways to make lunch periods safer and tracks the number of members of the school community who are in "contact-based quarantine." Although there have been no cases yet in the Lanesborough and Williamstown schools, the administration continues to track developments in both towns and neighboring school districts, McCandless said.
Inside the school buildings, the district promotes the state-mandated rules around face coverings, 6-foot distancing and frequent hand-washing. But like his principals, McCandless praised the occupants of those buildings for enthusiastically doing the things they need to do to reduce the virus' spread.
"As somebody new to this school community and these communities, I see a strong sense of that ‘We over me' on a daily basis in the way our students, staff and families respond to masks, respond to filling out the health questionnaire, respond to the notion of staying put for Thanksgiving rather than flying, traveling, etc.," McCandless said.
"Even as we plan for and look for ways to get more students back for more time, including our nuanced student populations and youngest students, for whom learning gaps are the riskiest, we also continue to plan for strategic, in-person learning reductions. This is one of those areas where we seem to contradict ourselves, but we really want to maintain in-person for as long as we can, even if that means reducing the days or hours of in-person in order to get out from some of the practices we're concerned about, like eating lunch."
In addition to his "three pillars" of education during the COVID-19 era, McCandless continued his architectural metaphor by calling "diversity, equity, belonging and inclusion" the foundation of everything the district wants to be and wants to do.
Jose Constantine, who made diversity, equity and inclusion the cornerstone of his campaign for the School Committee this fall, asked McCandless how he plans to involve diverse voices in the conversation.
"It's going to start with my modeling listening to what the lives and experiences of individual neighbors are and using that data and working to generalize that data and have other people in leadership in this organization do the same thing," McCandless said.
"I think that the work of diversity, equity and inclusion, when we speak about that here, we need to include the ‘B,' which is belonging. That's why getting to know people and hear their story is so vital. Without a sense of belonging, without a sense of someone saying, ‘Not only am I here, but I belong here,' I'm not sure we move to inclusion and equity."
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