LENOX — Amid rising concern about the countywide spike in coronavirus cases, the public school district is terminating in-classroom learning until Jan. 19, relieving the concerns of most local educators and some families, but dismaying other parents and students.
After an intense discussion among some of the 100 participants during a remote School Committee meeting Thursday night, committee members voted 4-2 in favor of interim Superintendent William Cameron’s recommendation for a temporary return to remote-only education.
The vote came on a day when the state Department of Public Health added Pittsfield, Lee and Dalton to the list of “moderate risk” communities. COVID-Act Now, a nonprofit affiliated with the Harvard Global Health Institute, added Berkshire County to a map of 31 New England counties, including most of Massachusetts, facing an active or imminent outbreak of the virus.
Nevertheless, ahead of the School Committee decision, a half-dozen concerned parents cited data contending that schools are not spreading the virus. Those parents, including several physicians, emphasized not only the disadvantages of remote learning and the disruption to family schedules, especially for working couples, but also the highly negative impact on students.
“The data does not support the schools as the problem, the data supports illicit super-spreader gatherings as well as bars and restaurants inside as the problem,” said Dr. Georgianne Valli-Harwood. “Going to full hybrid is not appropriate at this time; you can reach out to the medical community and find similar opinions.”
School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan acknowledged letters from several teachers pointing out that a student had attended classes despite a positive test affecting a family member and another student in seventh grade came to school despite a parent awaiting test results.
“There was great concern that the judgment to send the student to school was not acceptable and precautionary measures should have taken place,” Vaughan said, quoting the teachers. He also noted a dramatic, recent decline in the number of students attending classes at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.
In his detailed report to the commission, Cameron cited Tri-Town Health Department Executive Director James Wilusz, who attended the meeting, for helping school officials “as we try to navigate through the shoals of this epidemic to arrive at the best educational solutions we can during this extraordinarily difficult time.”
Cameron pointed out that the school district’s Joint Labor-Management Committee for Health and Safety has met weekly to review countywide and regional infection data. The committee voted Tuesday to enter full-time remote education until Dec. 11, said Anna Pettus, a Morris Elementary School teacher.
He listed several other districts that have returned to fully remote instruction, including Pittsfield, Drury High School in North Adams and Hoosac Valley in Adams because of confirmed cases of the virus among staff or students.
Cameron acknowledged that “students would be best off if schools were open every day for full-day, in-person instruction provided by a teacher physically present in class.” But, he emphasized, citing recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on 6 feet of separation within classrooms, “what is best is not possible. … We face hard choices about what our highest priorities should be and how we should proceed reasonably for acting on that priority.”
He noted that the positive test rate has been rising in Lenox and surrounding communities, according to state data. The superintendent described his greatest concern, the likelihood of a sharp increase in positive tests after the Thanksgiving holiday, after families gather and, in some cases, travel.
“I fear that if we do not think this through clearly … if we decide to wait and see what happens in the weeks following Thanksgiving and the Christmas-New Year’s vacation, we will be participating in a nasty experiment with the health of the young people we’re obliged by law to educate, and the health of those we employ to provide that education to them,” Cameron declared. “We would be playing in a public health version of Russian roulette, saying, in effect, ‘Well, let’s see what happens.’ ”
He presented four options for a School Committee decision:
• Continue the hybrid blend of in-person and remote learning, “the ‘cross-your-fingers-and-hope’ option.”
• Go fully remote through Dec. 11, allowing 14 days of self-quarantine for anyone exposed to the coronavirus during the Thanksgiving holiday. But, that option would allow only eight days of school before the end-of-year holiday break from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, creating a “whipsaw effect,” Cameron suggested.
• Going fully remote through Jan. 15, after another 14-day quarantine period for potential infections.
• Remaining fully remote indefinitely for all students prekindergarten through 12th grade, until further notice, as recommended by the CDC as the lowest-risk choice during a pandemic until the virus is fully under control through widespread immunization from a highly effective vaccine. But, Cameron said, the pediatric medical community has pinpointed concerns over major negative impacts on children, ranging from obesity to suicidal thoughts.
Firmly ruling out the fourth option, Cameron cited the ongoing threat from the virus over the next six weeks as his rationale for the remote-only approach through Jan. 15. He noted that, currently at Morris Elementary, 22 percent of students already are learning only at home through parental choice, while 57 percent of middle and high schoolers are choosing to attend remotely.
“A major factor is surely parental or students’ fear of contracting the virus at school and then bringing it home,” the superintendent said.
Lenox Education Association President Mary Cherry, a teacher at LMMHS, commented that increasing in-person absentee numbers makes it “very difficult to sustain our hybrid model going forward.”
Cameron conceded that his recommended option “will impose new hardships on some families. I deeply regret that; it is not my intent to make people’s lives harder.”
As leader of the district, he said, “I do not intend for the operation of our schools to play a part in aggravating what is already an horrific public health crisis. … If there is an error to be made, I prefer that, in the midst of this pandemic, we err on the side of physical safety.”
But, School Committee member Molly Elliot described the current hybrid model as “very well thought-out and planned,” and urged that it continue, arguing a lack of data showing that schools are a source of coronavirus transmission.
But, any student spending time with members outside their household must quarantine for two weeks or present a negative test before returning to in-person learning, she added. Also, any students with a family member awaiting a test result should remain remote until a negative test is obtained.
Elliot also suggested a fifth option that would keep the youngest students at Morris Elementary in the classroom because “they are very vulnerable to the impacts of remote learning.”
But, committee member Anne Marie O’Brien countered that “we’re trying to do the safest thing possible, understanding that the best place for children to learn is in the school full time.” She noted that 40 percent of Lenox students and many staff members come from Pittsfield and other communities outside Lenox.
“Looking at the numbers of community spread has caused us to pause because there are people who are not following guidelines,” said O’Brien, a member of the school district’s Joint Labor-Management Committee.
“While there may not be data saying the schools are a source of contagion or a spreader, the choice we’re faced [with] is whether to go with a proactive response or a reactive response,” said School Committee member Robert Munch. “If we stay in school, it will become a reactive response with all the disruption that comes with that. If we decide to go out, we have a plan, we have preparations, the teachers, the students are prepared as much as they can be.”
“We’ve been working in lockstep with the superintendent since the onset of the pandemic in March,” Wilusz, the Tri-Town Health director, pointed out. “There is a risk here; some challenges in the community, and as public health officials, we’re sort of in agreement that there’s significant risk going into the holiday break.”
He suggested that the School Committee either can plan or “do it abruptly,” referring to an all-remote switch-over if multiple cases emerge. Wilusz stated that his department and the Lenox Board of Health would support whatever decision the committee makes, “but the risk is there in the community and most, if not all, of us are concerned leading into the Thanksgiving and holiday break and what that may look like.”