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North Adams Schools Creates Panel to Review COVID-19 Plans

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The public schools and the teachers union have agreed to create a joint labor management committee to make determinations whether the school system should be remote or hybrid learning. 
The addendum to the memorandum of understanding was approved 6-1 by the School Committee, with member Tara Jacobs voting against, at a special meeting on Thursday. The North Adams Teachers Association had approved the amendment by a two-thirds vote of attending members prior to the meeting. The agreement is in effect as of Thursday.
The committee is similar to others being developed by school systems to offer some flexibility in interpreting COVID-19 metrics provided by the state. Mount Greylock and Hoosac Valley regional districts have already set up committees. 
The agreement with teachers hashed out last summer had set triggers for sending schools into remote learning. These benchmarks were largely based on the positivity rate of the city — if the 14-day average positive test rate hit 3 percent and/or the 15 surrounding communities that send students and staff to North Adams together hit 3 percent, the system would go remote. 
But school officials have said these numbers are not really representative of the risk of transmission within the schools. 
"Recently, we've been looking at metrics that have been consistently keeping us in remote, although not necessarily associated with our schools," Superintendent Barbara Malkas explained. "At the time when we were negotiating this, we really were basing it on the advice of our public health professionals who were identifying the idea that at a 5 percent positivity rate, according to the World Health Organization, you'd be at that place where you would start to overwhelm your health-care facilities and your ability to treat the number of cases."
After discussions with Berkshire Medical Center, that figure agreed on was lowered 3 percent because of the low capacity of the regions few hospitals. Malkas said that "stoplight" protocol has been useful in determining spread in larger communities like North Adams or Williamstown but not in smaller communities. 
She noted Hancock's 20 positivity rate last week that was caused by two positive tests out 10 taken; this week it's down to 10 percent, because of one positive test out of 10 taken. 
"It's really not representative of a high degree of community spread when it's only two individuals. And by the way, neither of these two individuals are associated with the School Department," she said. "We wanted to be able to have a conversation with the implementation of a pool testing program to really make sure that we were going to have conversation about our metrics, so that we are being adaptive to any changes in our community with regards to community spread of COVID-19. 
"But we also wanted to have the metrics be realistic, and really associated with the potential for community spread within our school community."
The school system has been invited to join a pool testing pilot program through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Pool testing means mixing samples from a group, such as a classroom, and testing for COVID-19 antigens. A negative test means the entire group is clear; a positive test means that each person in the pool would have to follow up with rapid result testing. 
This would give the school system some control of real-time data rather than relying on the current community transmission rates, which may not relate to schools. According to state data, schools have not been significant factors in spreading the virus.  
Malkas said data from the pool testing will be one of the indicators for the committee, which will meet each Friday morning after the weekly public health data is posted and will consult public health officials and the school nurse leader before making determinations. 
"Since we are going to be initiating the pool testing program, we can be more flexible in pulling together our committee when there is definitely evidence that we're starting to see community spread within our schools," she said.
The committee will be made up of three people from adminstration and School Committee and three from the union, all of whom will be voting members. A two-thirds vote would be required for any changes which would go into effect the following Monday. 
Unless "extraordinary circumstances occur," the state's levels will generally determine remote or hybrid learning. If North Adams finds itself in the "red level," meaning high number of cases and positivity rate, the schools go to remote and remain there until the city has been yellow, green or gray for two weeks. 
Where the committee will come in is if there is evidence of COVID-19 clusters within schools and if a particular school should close and, if widespread, closure of all the schools. Outside of schools, it would be considering the positivity rates of the city and the surrounding towns relevant to the school community.
Malkas said the agreement is in effect as long as the pool testing is being implemented and until the teachers can be vaccinated.
"That may in fact be a change that will allow our positivity rates to become very low and allow us to move forward without having to consider metrics if the rates, come down and remain down over a long period of time," she said. "But I don't see that happening until we've been able to establish widespread thresholds of immunity within our community and that's not going to probably happen anytime soon."
The superintendent thanked the teachers union leadership for all the work they working for their members "to ensure that we have a metric that I think will meet our community needs as well as the needs of our teachers and their safety and their concerns."
Classes will be resuming on Monday for the hybrid schedule after being in remote since Christmas vacation. 

North Adams Public Schools Amended Memorandum of Agreement by on Scribd

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North Adams Council to Review Hydrant Ordinance Next Week

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council on Tuesday referred an ordinance change regarding fire hydrants to the General Government Committee over the originator's protests. 
City Councilor Jason LaForest had initially submitted the proposal for the creation of a "Fire Hydrant Division" with a request to refer to his Public Safety Committee but on Tuesday night instead asked it be fast-tracked to publication and a second reading. 
The rest of the council balked at taking a shortcut in the process, rejecting the motion and voting 8-1 to send the language to the General Government with only LaForest voting no. 
The ordinance relates to issues regarding non-functioning fire hydrants and how information is shared between the Water Department and police dispatch. Two recent fires highlighted problems with the hydrants; officials say about 130 of the 631 hydrants in the city are nonfunctioning in some way. The city has been working for a decade to address faulty hydrants of which nearly half had been dysfunctional back in 2011. 
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