LENOX — Two of the designated days off on the school district calendar for 2021-22 were the focus of controversy at the School Committee meeting this week, after recently elected member Veronica Fenton contended that they “go against the goal of diversity, equity and inclusion.”
She depicted Oct. 11, a federal holiday traditionally known as Columbus Day, as a holiday “being reviewed by many communities as something that is antithetical to equity and inclusion when we are trying to teach history that talks in a factual basis about the history of our country. Columbus Day is not an accurate depiction of the history, and really creates some mythology around who Columbus was and where he belongs in the United States historiography.”
Fenton recommended that the school district calendar designate Oct. 11, 2021, just as a federal holiday, and not indicate who it is honoring “because, quite frankly, people honor lots of different people on that day.”
She also suggested curriculum discussions on “how we look at that day,” citing previous elementary school programs on the culture and history of Indigenous peoples.
Fenton also raised the issue of next year’s April 15 vacation day, listed as a day off preceding a one-week spring recess.
“I believe that it is here because it is actually what is recognized by some people as Good Friday,” she told the committee. “It’s a tradition that’s honoring a specific religion, and we don’t give off very important days in other people’s cultures” such as Jewish or Muslim religious observances, Fenton said.
She suggested that the committee remove “this inequitable practice of taking off one religious day, but not others.”
But, newly elected committee member Oren Cass called it “unfortunate that we have to politicize the school calendar.” Fenton pushed back, contending that “nothing about my statement was political; it’s a question of how we talk about culture and history in our schools.”
Her motion to remove the Columbus Day designation and just list it as a federal holiday off was approved 4-2 by the committee.
But, Fenton’s effort to remove Good Friday as a typical day off opened more robust discussion, as new member Meghan Kirby pointed out that teachers and employees can take it as a religious holiday, raising issues of adequate coverage if the official day off is removed from the school calendar.
“I think this really needs to be communicated and thought out well, and I do think it will lead to a logistical nightmare,” Lenox Education Association President Mary Cherry stated.
“We should not give preference to any particular religious holiday,” Fenton said. She moved that Good Friday be designated as a half-day holiday next April 15, though Kirby said half-days are “a nightmare” for working parents. The motion was not seconded, leaving the issue unresolved pending further conversation recommended by Fenton, but maintaining next April 15 as a day off.
The school calendar then was approved unanimously, with only one change — removing the Oct. 11 designation of Columbus Day but keeping it listed as a federal holiday with school closed.
In other developments at Monday’s School Committee meeting:
• The recent asbestos-cleanup project at the middle and high school cost $600,000, which will be covered by $315 in savings on health insurance along with transfers from other budget lines, as explained by Assistant Superintendent Melissa Falkowski and approved by the School Committee.
Superintendent William Cameron stressed that the school is not “a dangerous place,” based on guidance from the state Department of Labor and from Eco-Genesis, the air sampler and project planner. The view is that it is a “nuisance” only because of remaining nontoxic traces of asbestos particles on windowsills, he said.
• Summer programming will be offered to at least 55 Morris Elementary School students in two-week morning segments, focusing on the lower grades and overlapping with afternoon activities planned by the Lenox Community Center at the school. Those students were identified by their teachers as needing “supplemental help to enable them to move more smoothly into the next grade,” Cameron said.
• At LMMHS, about 30 students, primarily in the middle school, are expected to attend summer instruction, two hours weekly, from July 6 to Aug. 6 in math and English Language Arts, said Principal Michael Knybel.
“This isn’t a requirement, but it’s generalized reinforcement to give them a leg up into their grades so they can enter the fall more confidently,” he said. A remote option will be available as well, he added.
• The reopening of the two public schools in the fall will be normal, based on guidance from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Whether students will be expected to be masked while in school is unknown, Cameron said, since the status of COVID vaccinations for young children remains uncertain.
Thorough cleaning of school buildings will continue, as will the use of hand sanitizers. Remote education will not be an option, according to state guidelines. The expectation is that all teachers will return to the school buildings for in-person instruction, Cameron added.
• Guidance counselors are working on plans to assist students who have been away from in-person learning for a full year adjust to the return to school if they have difficulty or if other issues arise.
• A new assistant principal, Brent Bette, has been hired for LMMHS. He is a social studies teacher at Pittsfield High School and expects to receive a master’s degree in education, specializing in school leadership, from Harvard University this year.
Bette succeeds Brian Cogswell, retiring after 25 years at the school as dean, assistant principal and basketball coach. Cameron called him “an outstanding administrator,” citing his “character and his ability to work effectively with students.”