At PHS, a heartfelt sign of support for students

Colleen Quinn, an art teacher at Pittsfield high School, made a banner showing love and support for the Class of 2020.

PITTSFIELD — City schools won't be reopening normally nor on time, at least for the start of the fall semester.

During a nearly 3 1/2-hour virtual School Committee meeting on Monday, members voted to take off the table consideration of a fully in-person model; on a parallel track, the state and teachers' unions agreed Monday to push back opening two weeks.

Pittsfield Public Schools administrators and School Committee members will continue to meet with the United Educators of Pittsfield and survey all of its staff this week to flesh out the details of a hybrid and fully remote learning models.

Like public school districts across the state, Pittsfield has been tasked with drafting reopening plans under three scenarios: a remote learning model, a full-fledged return to the classroom, and a hybrid that combines elements of both. The district must submit its draft plan for reopening to the state Education Department on Friday.

As part of that process, the district has sent surveys to families of students encouraging them to share their feelings about reopening amid the pandemic. As of Friday, the district received 2,713 response forms.

During Monday's session, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless shared some of the results of the surveys.

More than half the respondents — 56.2 percent — answered "No" to the following scenario posed in the survey: "I would be willing to send my child to school five full days a week with all students and staff in the building spaced 3 feet apart."

Amid that level of concern, as well as growing union opposition to reopening schools under the in-person model, the committee voted unanimously to direct the administration to focus on the hybrid and remote models.

Committee members also discussed the possibility of pushing back the start date to Sept. 15, but moves by the state rendered their discuss moot. 

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley and state teachers' unions on Monday signed an agreement that will officially reduce the 180-day school year requirement to 170 days, to accommodate a 10-day period for districts to prepare to reopen school buildings that have been closed since March.

School districts must begin providing instruction to students by Sept. 16, but can apply for a waiver if they cannot meet that requirement. 

Pittsfield was originally scheduled to begin Aug. 26. 

McCandless said the district also is in the process of scheduling additional town hall-style virtual meetings for parents this week.

The district is considering a couple of hybrid models. One model splits up a school's student population into a morning (8:30 to 11 a.m.) and an afternoon (1:15 to 3:45 p.m.) cohorts to receive core academic instruction. Specialists instruction and things like physical education and health would be done remotely.

Another hybrid model would have the cohorts split attendance between days of the week, with half of students attending in person Monday and Tuesday, and the other half going on Thursday and Friday.

The hybrid models allow for more adequate social distances of 6 feet and time to keep the classrooms sanitized.

A partial-year model under consideration allows for students to have daily remote instruction until schools can safely be fully reopened or transition into a hybrid model.

In tandem with reopening plans, officials are also moving forward in developing plans to open a "13th school" in the district — a virtual academy — which could potentially open with 60 staff and serve up to 1,200 students, pending negotiations and interest. This additional proposal has been brought forth as a way to accommodate staff and students with health concerns and preferences for remote learning as a full-time educational option even beyond COVID-19.

Risks 'too high'

Monday's meeting was prefaced by a statement released via Facebook by the executive board of the United Educators of Pittsfield, after the board polled its members.

"Based on emerging data on COVID-19 and the logistical concerns of opening our buildings safely, the United Educators of Pittsfield Executive Board, with the overwhelming support of educators we represent, believes that the only safe way to resume learning in September is remotely," the statement begins.

"We recognize how difficult this can be on families and caretakers, but the risks remain too high to endorse in-person learning at this time," the statement also read.

A local branch of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, UEP is the contract negotiator for all educators of Pittsfield, including teachers as well as school librarians, school adjustment counselors and other education professionals. According to its website, the UEP represents nearly 600 employees of the distric.

UEP President Melissa Campbell reread the statement during the public comment period of Monday's meeting and made additional remarks. After the meeting, she told The Eagle via a chat message, "We are not saying that we won't move to a hybrid model. Remote learning is part of the hybrid model so it makes sense to make sure that is working and students and families know how to use it. Then start bringing kids into buildings. There are many things that need to be addressed in order to bring students and staff into buildings. We have talked about a number of them but many questions remain."

Next steps

At least two meetings have been scheduled with UEP members and school officials this week to continue negotiating terms and conditions of reopening, in addition to collecting feedback via surveys.

Additional public commenters, including several educators and one student, raised various concerns.

Some had to do about the quality of education in the classroom based on current social distancing restrictions and whether more substitute teachers will be called in if a teacher or their family is immunocompromised or should a teacher have to stay home due to a symptom like a cough or fever, both associated with COVID-19 as well as the flu and common cold.

"I have huge concerns of little ones' safety as well as adults' in the building," said JoAnn Sullivan, a kindergarten teacher at Williams Elementary School, noting that it's taken until this week for all teachers to be surveyed for their input.

She also said she knows in-person connections are the best way to help young children learn.

"It's been a very stressful summer," she said.

The State House News Service contributed to this story.