GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Hills Regional School District decided Thursday that students will start the school year Sept. 14 learning remotely, with the possibility of a switch to a hybrid, in-person model, depending on coronavirus infection rates.
The district backed away from a tentative hybrid plan, since there is no standard public health metric for schools to gauge the level of risk for a return to school buildings, said district Superintendent Peter Dillon.
And the School Committee was leery of a hybrid start, given spiking infections in most of the U.S., and an upward creep of virus cases in Massachusetts.
"Uncharted territory," School Committee Chairman Stephen Bannon called it.
Dillon said it was a slew of forums and meetings with hundreds and parents, as well as teachers union negotiations, that tipped his recommendation to a full-remote start. It's a reversal from a week ago, when he leaned toward the hybrid model. The union, the Berkshire Hills Education Association, has been firm in its remote-only stance.
The School Committee voted 10-0 for this new recommendation.
It wasn't an easy meeting. Parents were anxious about the virus on the one hand, and all the problems of remote learning on the other. While it's not ideal, Dillon said, schools will continue to try to work out kinks while the district awaits a benchmark.
"The remote model gives us time to answer questions and develop a metric," he said.
Schools nationwide have made the same decision, given the uncertainties and the need for time to prepare quickly for whatever model is chosen.
Last week, the neighboring Southern Berkshire Regional School District said it also is leaning toward the all-remote start, with the possibility of in-person school in October.
And on Friday, Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said it's "very likely" that school will begin Sept. 15 remotely, then transition to a hybrid learning model.
The all-remote education might curb the virus, but it sets off other problems, ranging from social and emotional to educational. And since public schools serve as day care for working parents, and feed children who don't have enough to eat, all-remote schooling could be destabilizing.
This is something that worries Neel Webber, an art teacher at Monument Mountain Regional High School. He wanted to know if the district could help working parents by finding ways to take care of children.
"It's hard for us to address that problem," Dillon said, noting that the district is making its recommendation to keep students and staff apart while the pandemic continues.
And parents had a host of concerns, ranging from how they would get their children to sit at a computer to how to monitor their work.
Dillon explained that teachers will have trainings to learn the new Canvas online learning platform, and will come up with creative ways to engage students. It won't be like remote learning last spring, at the start of the pandemic, something committee member Jason St. Peter called a "train wreck," at least for his three children.
But, there are other, more serious complications — how students with high disabilities, and with learning disabilities, will fare without in-person support.
"It's something we're struggling with," Dillon said.
Committee member Richard Dohoney was blunt: "The decision we made tonight is leaving them out to dry," he said of students with disabilities. "We need to meet weekly until we have good answers."
The committee also decided that those weekly meetings will take place.
Another problem is the 5 to 8 percent of families in the district that don't have reliable internet and rely on hot spots outside libraries and fire stations in the more rural areas. Dillon told Sandisfield parent Sonja Gray that this will have to get tackled on a family-by-family basis, and solutions could be hard to come by.
Brian Grossman, a parent from Great Barrington, sharply questioned Dillon about his reasoning for the all-remote plan, when infection rates are low in the area. Grossman also asked if distance learning is, indeed, safer, given other exposures as families scramble for day care and other possibilities that could spread infection.
Grossman wanted to know the science behind this decision, and Dillon said he wanted a metric so that he could make a science-based decision.
But, the decision also was based on current pandemic conditions.
"I find it against my conscience to vote remotely from my house to open a school to several hundred kids," said committee member Sean Stephen.
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.