PITTSFIELD — The district’s approach to hybrid learning is working for many families, but has so far proved untenable for others, contributing to a waiting list for the all-online Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, the superintendent said Wednesday.
Superintendent Jason “Jake” McCandless acknowledged that issue in a meeting Wednesday. The online school was established to serve students and families that wished to opt out of in-person learning for the entire school year.
“We know that what we’ve done is not working for everybody, we know that what we’re going to do is going to be challenging for some families,” he said. “But, we think it’s really vital that we have as many opportunities for in-person instruction as we can.”
He spoke at a School Committee meeting held the day that another batch of students returned to classrooms part time. The district reopened school entirely remote Sept. 15, and about two weeks later began bringing some students back to classrooms part time for hybrid learning, including special education, vocational and English learner pupils.
On Wednesday, students in prekindergarten, kindergarten, as well as grades 1, 2, 6 and 9 transitioned from remote to hybrid instruction. School Committee Chairperson Katherine Yon said she heard the day went well. Member Mark Brazeau said he heard “nothing but good things” about the ongoing transition to classrooms.
But, Pittsfield Public Schools is hearing from frustrated members of the community about aspects of the district’s current operations, said McCandless.
Running the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, whose students had their first day in the program Wednesday, poses “an immense scheduling challenge,” and keeping class sizes manageable and offering as much as possible to high school students has been difficult.
“Every solution that we come up with causes a new set of challenges,” said McCandless.
The district cut off additional enrollment to the virtual academy and is keeping a waitlist of students who wish to join, he said. They include young people whose families have found the district’s hybrid plans unworkable.
“We are hearing from families right now that simply kind of throw up their hands and say, ‘This isn’t possible, I have no choice but to enter the virtual academy,’ ” said McCandless.
Under the district’s hybrid learning plan, elementary school students attend in-person class for a few hours each day in either the morning or the afternoon. Middle and high school students attend in-person class for a few hours in the morning every other school day. Another batch of students is set to transition to hybrid learning Oct. 20, and the final group will make the switch Oct. 27.
Maximizing instructional time while favoring in-person learning was the right approach for a district in which, according to McCandless, over 63 percent of students are considered “high needs” and countywide coronavirus health data is among the best in New England right now.
“We still think that a daily opportunity, or as close to that as possible, to actually physically touch base, and put eyeballs on each other, and connect in that way, even at a safe 6-foot distance, is vital in a community like ours,” said McCandless.
But, making bus transportation work during hybrid learning when the district’s fleet of 77 passenger buses is operating at half or less-than-half capacity to abide by distancing rules has been an immense challenge, said McCandless. The district has done a good job busing students it is mandated to transport but currently cannot offer rides to before- and after-school programs.
The district is working toward finding “some solution” to providing transportation to such programs and for students in kindergarten and prekindergarten, he said.
The county is doing well when it comes to containing the coronavirus, according to the superintendent, though he acknowledged that could change. One source of data the district uses to inform its decisions, Covid Act Now, shows the county “essentially on the brink of eliminating COVID-19 for all intents and purposes in Berkshire County,” according to McCandless.
Providing parents with certainty about their child’s educational schedule is paramount, he said.
But, as the district continues its transition to hybrid learning, McCandless says it also has eyes on the ultimate goal — getting students back to classrooms full time.
“We are waiting anxiously for the day when we can get back to school as usual, it’s good for kids, our staff definitely wants it, and the community definitely wants it and really really needs it,” said McCandless.
The district will all but certainly be under new leadership when that day comes, as McCandless has but a few weeks before he is expected to depart for his new role as superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District.
Joseph Curtis, the current deputy superintendent, was appointed to serve as interim school chief from Nov. 2 until June 30, with an extension clause should the district fail to find its next permanent superintendent by then, according to a copy of his new contract, which was approved by the School Committee on Sept. 23.
Curtis will make an annual prorated salary of $160,000, an increase from his current salary of $127,500, according to a copy of his deputy superintendent contract.
Also on Wednesday, the School Committee, by majority vote, moved to hire a consultant from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees to guide its search for a new superintendent, at a discounted rate of $9,500 — just less than the $10,000 mark that, under state law, would have required the district to seek at least three quotes from consultants.
Yon said the association, of which the committee is a dues-paying member, considers a district’s ability to pay when setting the price for its service.
The committee voted 5-1 in favor of appointing an MASC consultant, with only Brazeau voting “no,” and member Dennis Powell abstaining but offering no reason why. The consulting fee will be accounted for in the $23,000 budget line for School Committee expenses, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke.
“We will be looking for it wherever we find savings this year, and we may have to do some transfers in order to make that happen,” she said.