Pittsfield approves hybrid reopening plan for public schools, with possible remote start

Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless formally tendered his resignation on Thursday to take a post as superintendent of Mount Greylock Regional Schools.

PITTSFIELD — The School Committee on Thursday approved a hybrid learning model for families comfortable with their children returning to in-person instruction, but stopped short of ruling out a fully remote start to the fall semester.

Under the hybrid learning model, which the committee unanimously accepted well into the fifth hour of a virtual public meeting on Thursday, students would attend school in person for a few hours each school day, either in the morning or afternoon. Students would also be expected to remotely complete additional tasks meant to build on their in-person lessons.

However, the district and the United Educators of Pittsfield are still negotiating over which public health metrics will be used to determine whether and when the risks associated with resuming in-person instruction are low enough to reopen school buildings. State health officials are also expected to weigh in on the matter next week, said Superintendent Jason “Jake” McCandless.

Without agreement on the key benchmarks, it remains unclear when in-person lessons will resume.

The School Committee also approved an all-online school known as the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy. The academy, which will run for the entire year, will serve between 1,000 to 1,200 students who, for any reason, do not intend to return to in-person instruction.

Another remote learning model, being developed separate from the academy, would come into play if instruction resumes remotely in the fall, before an eventual transition to hybrid or fully in-person school. Under this model, all courses will be taught and received remotely, while Deputy Superintendent Joe Curtis said there are plans to offer limited in-person activities for special education students, English language learners, and vocational students.

The district will submit its plans for resuming instruction to the state by Monday. While the School Committee selected its preferred hybrid model Thursday, the administration made it clear that exactly when students might expect to see the inside of a classroom remains an open question.

Earlier in the meeting, the School Committee decided that McCandless will remain the superintendent of Pittsfield Public Schools for three months before taking his new job.

The committee voted 5-2 to hold McCandless to the terms of his contract, which stipulates he must give 90 days' notice.

Before that vote, members grappled with how to balance the best interests of the district with the wishes of the outgoing schools chief, who, prompted by committee member William Cameron to suggest his preferred timeline, indicated he would like to start at Mount Greylock Regional School District in about one month.

Members also voted unanimously to appoint Deputy Superintendent Joe Curtis to serve as interim superintendent after McCandless departs.

Committee member Dennis Powell said he was concerned about the domino effect that releasing McCandless from his contract early would have on the workloads of Curtis and colleagues.

"We are not in normal circumstances. None of us even have an idea of what's ahead of us, so to me, you hold the cards that you have that you know are working well to get you through," he saidl. "We owe it to our community, we owe it to our administrators and we owe it to our faculty and staff to have as much support as we can."

Member Alison McGee echoed Powell, while member Daniel Elias said that while there is "never a good time to lose a superintendent, I think this is probably the worst of time for this to happen."

McCandless formally tendered his resignation on Thursday, meaning his employment will extend into the first week in November.

An earlier motion by Mayor Linda Tyer, who serves on the committee, would have allowed McCandless to leave the district Oct. 2, but that measure was rejected on a 3-4 vote. She said Curtis is fully capable of assuming McCandless' duties while the committee embarks on what she said should be a “comprehensive robust search process” for permanent superintendent.