McCandless: 'Very likely' Pittsfield schools will open Sept. 15 - remotely, at first

Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless says it's "very likely" that students will start the school year Sept. 15, and do so remotely, before transitioning to a hybrid learning model.

PITTSFIELD — It's not a done deal yet, but the superintendent said Friday that it's "very likely" that Pittsfield Public Schools will begin Sept. 15 remotely, then transition to a hybrid learning model.

"We'll very likely be opening remotely, and the aspiration is to move to hybrid as quickly as we can within the realm of what is ensuring the most safety for most people — kids and adults alike," Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said.

McCandless spoke the day after the School Committee held a six-hour virtual meeting and approved an "AM/PM" hybrid learning model that would incorporate daily in-person and remote instruction for most students. The committee declined to set a date on which the hybrid model would begin, as negotiations with the United Educators of Pittsfield, the contract negotiator with all educators in Pittsfield, continue over the terms for reopening schools.

The union has presented the district a number of conditions predicating a return to school, McCandless said. Deputy Superintendent Joe Curtis said that among the issues raised in negotiations were air quality and testing standards.

The district and the union also must agree on metrics used to judge when COVID-19 infection rates are low enough to open school buildings, and conversely, if coronavirus surges, to close them again.

It's a "balancing act" that requires weighing the risks associated with the coronavirus against the risks associated with prolonging the time children spend away from teachers and classmates, said Dr. Alan Kulberg, chairman of the city's Board of Health. He saw no benefit to delaying the start of hybrid learning, citing the city's "enviable" and relatively low COVID-19 positivity rate and its capacity to contact trace.

Planning is underway with Berkshire Medical Center and local pediatricians to build capacity to test children for the coronavirus, he said, making it possible to limit transmission and "stamp out those fires before they become big community threats."

McCandless told the committee there comes a point where "COVID dangers are actually eclipsed by those other dangers" to students associated with keeping school buildings closed, including students missing meals, transgressing academically and socially, and remaining out of sight from teachers who might be able to detect signs of child abuse and neglect.

Thursday's meeting began with a presentation from the executive directors of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, who addressed how the committee could embark on a search for a new superintendent. Members then took separate votes in favor of retaining McCandless through November, as obligated by his contract, and appointing Curtis as interim superintendent after McCandless departs to lead the Mount Greylock Regional School District.

Curtis outlined the "AM/PM" hybrid model, which was recommended by the Joint Labor Management Bargaining Committee and later approved by the School Committee.

Students are split into two cohorts that attend class at school for about 2.5 hours daily, either in the morning or in the afternoon. There would be a two-hour break between the cohorts, when classrooms would be cleaned with an electro-sprayer and students are transported to and from school.

According to data that Curtis presented, the district received survey responses from 1,477 parents of children in elementary school, 640 parents of children in middle school and 958 parents of children in high school. Of the respondents, 78 percent, 77 percent and 85 percent of parents, respectively, said they would be willing to send their child back to in-person school either for full days or for reduced hours.

For families of students who, for any reason, do not want to send their child to in-person school, the district received the committee's blessing to launch what it is calling the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, a full-year, online school that will have its own principal and through which students could earn a diploma, Curtis said.

Mayor Linda Tyer pressed for the hybrid option to begin at the start of the school year. She said that, after months of managing the pandemic, "our city is in a remarkable position at this point in terms of its rate of infection," and that launching the virtual academy and hybrid models together would provide the "best of both worlds" to families.

Around the fifth hour of the meeting, as participants wiped fatigue from their eyes, members of the School Committee set out to word a motion with wiggle room to account for the ongoing negotiations. They named the "AM/PM" hybrid model as the committee's top choice for the fall, but qualified that a remote start to the school year is possible.

The School Committee will meet again, virtually, on Wednesday, when it is due to formally amend the academic calendar to move back the start of school to Sept. 15, one day earlier than previously announced.

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.