Wave of coronavirus concerns prompts 'unprecedented' school closings in Berkshires

Public school districts in Berkshire County, most of which closed for at least two weeks Friday, joined districts in Northampton, Boston and elsewhere in closing their doors. The move brought dissent from some, as well as tension between state and school leaders - the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents had pushed for a statewide closure of public schools.

Schools shuttered throughout Berkshire County on Friday in a collective bid to stave off further spread of the new coronavirus.

Spreading even faster than the virus was the kind of fear that keeps students and staff from showing up for class. Pittsfield Schools Superintendent Jason McCandless said about 125 educators did not show up for work Friday.

"There's also just the reality that, at some point, we don't have enough grown-ups to safely operate schools," McCandless said. "All our staff are human beings with needs and fears."

Public school districts in Berkshire County, most of which closed for at least two weeks, joined districts in Northampton, Boston and elsewhere in closing their doors. The move brought dissent from some, as well as tension between state and school leaders — the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents had pushed for a statewide closure of public schools.

The times are uncharted ones for schools, the association's statement said, and it decried "mixed messages" and "a lack of timely guidance."

Earlier on Friday, Gov. Charlie Baker issued a statewide ban on congregations of 250 people or more. The suggested 6 feet of social distance is difficult to practice in school settings, and order is challenging to reach in school settings, McCandless said.

"We happen to feel that this situation was significant enough that we needed state direction — a little firmer state direction," he said.

As increasing volumes of students and staff stopped showing up, McCandless said, "we could see the handwriting on the wall."

"I don't think Pittsfield is unique or special in that way," he said. "This is an issue all across the commonwealth. You reach a point where you don't have enough staff people."

Nine people in the county have tested positive, and the community spread of COVID-19 in the Berkshires remains mysterious to many, and that makes people nervous.

"We have to assume there's lots and lots and lots of things we don't know," McCandless said.

Countywide concern

After a precautionary, self-imposed quarantine, a healthy Mayor Tom Bernard declared a state of emergency in a Friday evening news conference at North Adams City Hall. To date, he said, three city residents have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

Joining him in the City Hall lobby for a series of updates and an explanation of municipal building and facilities closings were leaders in city law enforcement, emergency response services, the fire department, the health department, the school department, as well as officials from neighboring Williamstown and Adams.

"As we go forward, I want to make one thing very, very clear: My team and I do not always have all the answers, but rest assured, I and they will continue to provide regular updates and the most complete and accurate information available," he said.

Northern Berkshire EMS General Manager John Meaney said that about half his staff is under quarantine, and that they are feeling the human resources and financial pinch from that.

First responders who took an infected Otis man also remain in quarantine. To that point, state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, said the county received some of the promised supplies from the national stockpile that state leaders had promised. But, not all.

It's important that first responders get the personal protective equipment they need to safely respond to calls, Farley-Bouvier said. "We need to do as much as we can to help them. I'm just worried."

Berkshire Medical Center is the common denominator in most of the county's cases to date, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The hospital imposed new restrictions on visitation at the hospital Friday, prohibiting visitors younger than 18, banning visitors to emergency and surgical units, and limiting the numbers of visitors in other areas of the medical facility.

And state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, said he is concerned that there are more people out there with the virus who haven't been able to get tested.

"The number of tests that are being done is not that high," he said.

Bernard said City Hall also will be closed to the public beginning Monday, along with the North Adams Public Library, Mary Spitzer Senior Center and the Peter W. Foote Vietnam Veterans Memorial Skating Rink.

Secure drop boxes will be set up at both entrances to City Hall, and electronic forms will be available to residents for any necessary payments or document requests.

Like other South Berkshire towns, Great Barrington has canceled all nonessential municipal meetings. And the Planning Board will extend the comment period for its public hearing on zoning changes, and will take comments in writing.

Also, the town has lifted the ban on the sale of small plastic water bottles. The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center announced Friday that it has canceled its events through April 10.

Kids lose `safe zone'

Many vulnerable children rely heavily on the support they get in school, said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. He fears for the single-parent families who can't take off work to care for children suddenly out of school, and for children who rely on the meals provided in school.

Closing the county's schools removes an important "safe zone" for families, he said.

"That's the decision they've made, but what's the plan for the next two weeks for those families? And what do you expect to change when those kids are coming back to school?"

There are about 5,261 students who attend Pittsfield Public Schools, and more than half of the student population is considered "economically disadvantaged" by state standards.

McCandless himself voiced concerns during a Wednesday School Committee meeting about what school closures could mean for students without regular access to healthy meals.

The Pittsfield Christian Center announced Friday that it would offer anyone, including local children, a free breakfast and lunch daily, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Boys & Girls Club of the Berkshires also announced that while it encouraged people to stay home during this period of time, the club would remain open for children who need it.

"These are extraordinary times," McCandless said in a letter home to families. Bernard, too, called the move "unprecedented." Superintendents from across the state participated in a joint conference call with the commissioners of the Department of Secondary and Elementary Education and the state's DPH.

For Pittsfield's part, McCandless said the district will operate a meals program like it offers over summer break, serving up to-go breakfast and lunch at sites throughout the city.

"We're really trying to do our part because we want kids and families to have access to nutritious food while this is going on," he said.

McCandless said the two-week closing will buy local leaders more time to pause and assess the spread to date. After two weeks, he said, "for better or for worse, we'll know more."

Eagle reporters Heather Bellow and Clarence Fanto contributed to this report.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.