WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee continues to hear from parents concerned about the lack of in-person instruction for most children in the PreK-12 district even as the panel works to modify the agreement with its unions to allow just that.
The committee held an executive session after last Thursday's meeting to discuss strategies with respect to collective bargaining with its union personnel. And Superintendent Jason McCandless said on Friday that he has asked the committee to look at some dates for a special meeting to consider a revised memorandum of understanding with the Mount Greylock Educational Association.
The next regular meeting of the School Committee is Feb. 11, but it was clear from the public comments at the start of last week's meeting that some in the community are unwilling to wait until the middle of next month for a revision to the MOU that allowed classes to begin in September
The committee was reminded that a petition calling for in-person instruction received more than 200 signatures in 36 hours, and that those families continue to be frustrated with the district's move from hybrid instruction to fully remote learning in early December
"I ask why Williamstown Elementary School, located in a town that has had a percent positivity rate less than than 2 percent since the beginning of the school year is engaged in all remote learning for most of the students," Catherine Keating asked in comments read aloud by School Committee Chair Christina Conry. "Please explain to me and to the hundreds of children and families who are suffering the negative ramifications of this policy, why we are being forced to do this.
"I do understand quite fully the health implications and severity of the COVID-19 virus. But there is a way to get our children back into the school buildings in a safe and responsible manner for all those involved."
Later in the meeting, McCandless did explain, again, why the district was forced to move to remote learning given the current public health metrics in the data.
Under the agreement negotiated in the summer by the union and administration, under the direction of the School Committee, there are a series of metrics that can trigger remote learning in the district. They include the test positivity rate in the district's member towns (Lanesborough and Williamstown) and the designation of those towns on the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's green-yellow-red index for municipalities.
The metric that currently drives the district's remote instruction status is the COVID-19 test positivity rate for Berkshire County. According to the MOU, the district's three schools go remote when that number is 3 percent or greater.
When the commonwealth released the most recent county positivity rates on Jan. 13, that number stood at 4.95 percent for the last 14 days.
Any alteration to the MOU would be subject to collective bargaining, and those discussions are ongoing, McCandless said.
"I do want to assure each of you elected members and really assure the rest of our community that we work at this," he said. "We meet, formally, at a minimum once a week and generally more. And we talk informally all the time. And we continue to try to strike an almost impossible balance of what the community wants of us and expects from us and what kids need from us and what the people who actually do the work with our kids in classrooms need from us."
School Committee member Jose Constantine asked McCandless what the district is planning to help students recover from the impact of the pandemic.
McCandless said the administration continues to plan "a couple of different things" for the summer but did not get into any specifics. He also said the middle-high school plans to add to its capacity to address students' social and emotional wellness in the fiscal year 2022 budget that the School Committee will see later this winter.
"We are certainly committed, and you heard a little in Principal [Jake] Schutz's presentation tonight," McCandless said. "What he was kind of too polite to say is that he wants to add an adjustment counsellor, a social worker, to his staff.
"In the best of times, that's a good investment. When you have 600 teenagers collected in a place with the pressures that come with being 13 through 22, that's a good investment in good times, but it's a great investment in hard times."
Schutz talked about a need to increase students' access to social workers and the school's wellness staff during the presentation of his school improvement plan, an annual exercise that precedes the School Committee's consideration of the next fiscal year's budget.
"Social emotional wellness and social emotional learning is a goal that was on there last year, and it's being reinforced this year," Schutz said. "The current effort is institutionalizing and recognizing that SEW/SEL is a staple element or an important ingredient in the overarching vision of what we value as a school community."
The school improvement plan is developed by each building's school council for presentation to the School Committee, which is responsible for the district's budget. The Mount Greylock SIP includes four other goals in addition to the social/emotional wellness piece for the 2021-22 academic year: academic achievement; diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; enhancing and promoting the arts; and building skills and obtaining resources to use data to measure progress in school improvement and strategic goals.
"We would need [resources] to measure our progress," Schutz said. "We want to see if we're moving the needle and if we're moving it in the right direction. … Some resources here are professional hours, instruments, ways to collect and analyze the data so we can hopefully work harder, not smarter. And also training of personnel so we can make sure our efforts are focused in the right direction.
"Success here would require dedicated resources or expertise. … We're not waiting for additional resources and professional hours to make this all happen. We are using what we have in trying to reorganize and regroup to tackle some of these goals with what we have at hand."