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Cheshire Selectmen Raise Concerns Over Data Security With School District

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Board of Selectmen is leery of a program being used by the Hoosac Valley Regional School District to assess students and the school community.
The board asked school officials to attend Tuesday's meeting specifically to discuss Panorama Education, a platform the district uses that provides reports that give educators individualized data they can use to inform their support for students' academic, social, and emotional learning.
"I think there are some issues that we need to work through as a community, and I think we can work together on navigating security issues that I can see being a part of the whole system and others related to software," Chairwoman Michelle Francesconi said Tuesday during the joint meeting. 
Superintendent Aaron Dean gave a quick overview of the program and explained how the district uses it. He said he worked with the company when they were a startup when he was an educator in Pittsfield. He said HVRSD implemented the program in 2020 after discussing it at a public meeting.
"This is a decision that is made by the School Cpmmittee so it is not typical that we would come here and present this," Dean said. "But I want to make sure that we put the information out in a factual way." 
Dean said the district uses the platform to release surveys to help gather student, family, and staff "voice." He said it is really a way to amplify and measure the entire community and use this information to better instruction and policy. 
"It gives us a big snapshot of the district," he said. "Panorama is the gold standard."
He said the district uses the software like many other districts in the state and the country. The survey function of the platform allows the release research-based surveys to give the district a better idea of school climate, student engagement, supportive relationships, school safety, and student-teacher relations.
Dean said the program helps the district get a better sense of social-emotional learning, something that the state mandates that they monitor
"If we don't maintain that then we are on the hook," he said. "So it is important that we have that information and collect it."
He said all families were sent an explainer on the program and given the opportunity to opt out.
"This is not about trapping anybody," he said. "This is about getting as much information as we can to support kids and to support families."
He said in reality, the district uses the platform twice a year to get a reading on the community.
"This is something we use for 20 minutes twice a year," Dean said. "It is not the crux of everything we do. It is just a tool we use to be better informed."
Francesconi was more suspicious of the company in general and had a fear that the data was logged and possibly exploited. She noted known security risks with Facebook and said Mark Zuckerberg's foundation has financially supported Panorama.
"I think this is bigger than most people understand, and I want to get to the bottom of what this is and what the district is using this data for and what they are taking," she said.
Dean said data is only viewed at the aggregate level and is in the school district's possession via a cloud service, not Panorama's. He said the information is secure and individual student information is not available for viewing.
"There is no connection to any personal data," he said. "... So if someone has a password they cannot get into our student information system and view a person's individual information. They are secure, and we are very confident in our tech department."
He said the security features work similarly to other education tools the district uses. 
Francesconi asked about student records with a concern that this survey data followed a student throughout their lives. She likened the situation to the dystopian young adult novel "The Giver"
"From the ages of 3 to 12 in 'The Giver' students are assessed for social and strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of parallels," she said. "Then they get steered into a path. When you have all of these pieces of information ... teachers, without even knowing, will shift a student into a certain career path. I know it sounds dystopian but what I am talking about is happening. It is an uncomfortable situation and we are all being held down."
Dean said realistically any information gathered would not impact students or follow them.
"How a student answered a question in second grade has no bearing on where they are in 12th grade," Dean said. "It is not going to follow them anywhere. When you send a transcript to college you aren't including a second-grade Panorama survey."
He added that student records are destroyed seven years after graduation.
School Committee member Bethany DeMarco asked where the questions were coming from. She said she wasn't sure if they were the board's questions, parents' or Francesconi's. She also did not think the conversation should be held at a selectmen's meeting.
"I just feel like this should be at a School Committee meeting. This is town time," she said. "Are their parents that asked you to come forward? ... This seems like it is coming from you, and it is out of the town's purview."
School Committee member Michael Mucci agreed and said the conversation really should not be taking place at a board of selectmen's meeting but should run through the proper channels at the district level. He added that per the district's legal counsel, the town has no jurisdiction over what software the district chooses to use.
Francesconi said she brought the issue to the board and the questions were her own based on her own research. She added that others have aired similar concerns to her.
"I really don't think that people have grasp on what information is out there," she said. "... I feel like, with a lot of things in the world right now, we are at a juncture where things are different."
She felt it was under the town's purview because the town funds a portion of the school district's budget and she was wary of potential future dealings with the FBI.
"I think there are a lot of things going on that just don't come up to the forefront of the conversation. I read a lot from a wide variety of sources and non-mainstream media and these are concerns that are being approached nationally and other places," she said. "I don't think I am overreaching because it is only a matter of time before we are making decisions whether we want the FBI to come here. I am trying to ward that off." 
Francesconi was referring to a letter sent to President Biden by the National School Boards Association in late September that asked for federal assistance to investigate and stop threats made over education policies. Confrontations in some parts of the country have included threats, assaults, violent protests and disruptions at schools and meetings over masks, vaccines and curriculums. 
In response to this, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland released a memorandum that would ask the FBI to work with authorities in each district to develop strategies against the threats.
Francesconi highlighted that the letter referred to some of the actions from parents as a form of domestic terrorism. She concerns that parent involvement eventually would be eliminated from the School Committee. 
"I think we have crossed into territory that none of us have seen before," she said. 
Mucci said that this was not the case and the district does not plan to change its policies in response to whatever is happening at the national level.
"Michelle, that is a reach," he said. "I understand what you are reading and saying, but we follow the rules and laws of the state of Massachusetts."
Dean said the district wants more parent involvement at its meetings. He said that is why they use Panorama to get a better sense of that voice that is not always present at their meetings. 
"I feel like there is an accusation here that we are doing something wrong, that we hiding something. We are just trying to do our job better," Dean said. "... We do everything we can to be transparent." 
Francesconi stepped back and noted that her anger is really not directed at the HVRSD but national concerns and her suspicion toward some of the big tech companies getting a stronger foothold in education during the pandemic.
"My security concerns are not really on the district level. They are with the Panorama," she said. "If you sense anger and hostility from me I am angry at the position that districts nationally, globally have been put in. I think that a lot of these software companies offer products that really benefit them." 
Selectman Jason Levesque agreed and cited an ACLU case in West Springfield where an education software platform a school district was using was logging keystrokes, and accessing student webcams and student computers.
He said his main concern was students' privacy, and that he wanted to make sure student data was safe.
Dean agreed education looks different now and has shifted more toward technology, especially in the past few years. He was confident in the district's policies and methods and reaffirmed that their main goal is to help students and to be transparent about how they are doing it.
He welcomed the conversation and asked Francesconi to send along other questions she may have about the services the district uses.
School Committee member Regina Hill agreed with Dean and said both bodies are capable and want what's best for the students in the two communities. She said with this partnership she is confident they can navigate many of these larger concerns as well as the smaller ones.
"I think you have two well-working boards ... we are all elected ... we hire talented people and we come from all different walks of life," she said. "I think we have to learn to trust each other and that we have the best interest of the students in mind and you have the best interest of the community. Together I think we can work together."


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Cheshire Mammoth Cheese Featured in Netherlands Cheese Magazine Kaas!

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Cheshire Mammoth Cheese is certainly known in these parts, but its fabled journey to Washington, D.C., has turned heads at Nederlands Nationaal Kaaskeurconcours, the Dutch National Cheese Inspection Competition.
"We understood that in certain domestic circles the story of the Mammoth Cheshire Cheese was revered, however, I'm not sure anyone expected this kind of international attention," said John Tremblay of the Cheshire Community Association.
As the story goes, the 1,235-pound wheel of cheese was commissioned by Elder John Leland after the election of Thomas Jefferson as president in 1800. Local historians say Cheshire was the only town in Berkshire County to have voted for Jefferson.  In fact, it is believed that every single vote but one went to Jefferson.
Townspeople converted a cider mill into a giant cheese press and with the help of more than 900 Cheshire cows, the half-ton cheese wheel was created and delivered to the new White House.
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