LENOX — The School Committee intends to explore a potential springtime reopening of full-time, in-person education at the town’s public schools. A summer school program to help students catch up on their academics also is in the planning stages.
Responding to feedback she has heard from some parents, committee member Francie Sorrentino is seeking answers on whether the town’s public schools will remain in hybrid learning for the rest of the school year or return to in-classroom education districtwide.
Sorrentino, a longtime cafeteria staffer at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, directed the question to school administrators attending Monday night’s remote committee meeting on the school’s budget plan for the 2021-22 academic year.
“Nothing’s really been communicated, and families are getting frustrated,” she said. “Let’s get a target date going, or a reason why we don’t have one.”
By the end of March or early April, the coronavirus vaccination program should have protected faculty and staff, she noted.
“Middle school parents are the ones who are most inquiring now,” Sorrentino pointed out. “They want answers; they’re getting pretty testy about it.”
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan agreed to put the question on the agenda for the next board meeting, on March 1.
A task force exploring a potential full reopening of the kindergarten and first grade classes at Morris Elementary School is scheduled to resume discussions March 4, based on the progress of vaccinating teachers by then, he said.
Molly Rivest, a family nurse practitioner at Community Health Programs and a task force member, wrote to the committee recently, expressing ongoing frustration that the youngest students are not fully in school, Vaughan said.
Rivest, a Morris Elementary parent, wrote, “There has been no solution, even though some of the schools around us are doing full-day instruction,” adding that she and several other Morris Elementary parents are considering enrolling their children in other districts through school choice or in private schools for the next school year.
“Lenox has a great educational reputation and, in my opinion, the inability to get the youngest and most vulnerable children back to school full time will leave that reputation tarnished,” Rivest said. “I am fearful that Lenox will suffer in the years to come because of the lack of in-person school being provided this year.”
She also cited a Center for Disease Control and Prevention report issued two weeks ago that suggested that schools could reopen safely for in-person learning, as long as proper mitigation measures remained in place.
As the School Committee completed its lengthy budget discussion, middle and high school Principal Michael Knybel was asked by member Robert Munch what the next school year might look like.
“I would love to think it’s going to be back to normal,” Knybel said. “I believe that it will be normal for most kids, but we’ll have some who still struggle. There’s no shame in saying that [the pandemic] has affected people mentally, and we have learners that have ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) and OCD (obsession-compulsive disorder) and different diagnoses already. I’ve seen them have difficulty thinking about coming back to school hybrid.
“It’s very important that we bond inside our building as a community,” Knybel added.
Vaughan asked administrators whether some summer programming might be offered, if safe, for elementary and middle and high school students.
Federal pandemic relief money is available for the school district as needed, Assistant Superintendent of Business and Operations Melissa Falkowski confirmed.
Knybel said the proposed 2021-22 budget plan supports math and English programs for this summer, and that the prospect of those classes has been discussed in faculty meetings.
“I’m drumming up business for summer school help,” he said.
Asked about sufficient resources for student mental health concerns that have been intensified during the COVID crisis, school nurse Jennifer Drees explained that anxiety and depression were increasing among students, even before the pandemic.
“COVID has brought a lot of that more to light, especially for families as well as for faculty,” Drees said. “We’re really looking at where the students are and what they need before we’re looking at their being able to access academics. We don’t know what the fall is going to look like in terms of resources we need.”
She emphasized “social and emotional relationship connections” by school personnel to support students.
Vaughan noted that mental health strategies will be included in the district’s upcoming five-year plan, based on suggestions from students in the “Active Minds” club at the high school.
“They are a group of phenomenal students looking to de-stigmatize mental health issues in the school system and support each other collaboratively and collegially, working to bring kids to the point where they can reach out to the adults in the school and get their needs met,” Drees said. “We all have our issues and we all support each other; there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, and they’ve been a great group to work with.”