LENOX — The School Committee has reaffirmed a plan to resume hybrid learning at the town’s public schools Jan. 19, blending in-person and remote instruction, as recommended by schools Superintendent William Cameron.
At a Monday night remote meeting attended by about 130 participants, it also voted 4-2 to allow winter sports — Alpine and Nordic skiing — to begin, despite strong opposition from the two top administrators at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, as well as the athletic director.
Cameron told the School Committee that medical specialists and public health officials advising the administration are updating the Lenox Education Association leadership and the Joint Labor-Management Committee on Health and Safety. With the exception of Lee, which has seen a spike, the trend in Lenox and Pittsfield reflects a decline in COVID-19 cases, he said.
The circumstances continue to be favorable to return to the hybrid approach, Cameron said. The school district had switched to the all-remote model starting Nov. 30.
The School Committee deferred action on a potential plan for a full-day, in-classroom reopening of kindergarten and first grade at Morris Elementary School, possibly Feb. 1 or Feb. 22. A task force of administrators, teachers and parents will resume discussions at a Jan. 14 meeting.
The group, which has held five meetings since Dec. 1, has heard objections from parents and teachers over the logistics of a full reopening, especially the need to switch some pupils to different teachers midway through the school year to avoid overcrowded classrooms.
“A lot of parents were very concerned about the idea of their student, after four months, switching teachers,” School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan pointed out. Also, a recent survey sent to parents of kindergarten and first grade students did not offer a continuation of hybrid instruction as an option. Instead, it asked for an either/or response on all-remote or all-classroom learning.
Vaughan, a former principal at Morris for 25 years, until 2008, pointed out that only four or five children switched teachers during that time.
“It’s not something you do lightly,” he cautioned. The plan that has been under discussion would require 25 to 33 percent of the pupils to be reassigned to a different teacher.
“We also needed a much greater buy-in from the Morris teaching faculty,” Vaughan added, another reason that the reopening plan has been shelved, at least temporarily. “We needed to figure out a way to not have kids switching classes after four months of instruction. It just didn’t seem feasible.”
On the winter athletics issue, some students and parents have pushed for a school program of Alpine and Nordic skiing as important for the well-being of cooped-up teens.
“I still see a problem with offering winter sports, with my own conscience,” middle and high school Principal Michael Knybel told the School Committee. He noted that under the hybrid model with separate morning and afternoon “cohorts” attending classes, athletics would mix those groups, and using teachers as coaches could interrupt other students’ education.
He also suggested that student transportation to skiing sites would pose a hardship for some families that have had to alter their work schedules.
“I really don’t want anyone left out from an event due to their own family dilemma,” Knybel said. “Sports would be a great thing, mentally and socially, for our students. My vote is still to hold off on athletics.”
Assistant Principal Brian Cosgwell agreed, citing safety considerations and “the well-being of everybody.”
Athletic Director David Pugh shared the hesitancy, noting that “outdoor activities are very social events.”
“Our hybrid schedule is unique to us and is working academically, from what I see as math department chairman,” he said. “It would be very, very difficult to manage who’s in what cohort, and when.”
Pugh also stressed that “in public schools, when you’re providing a service, it has to be equitable, attainable and available to all students.”
Vaughan described a recent meeting he and Cameron had held with “a pretty imposing medical group,” comprised of Tri-Town Health Department Executive Director James Wilusz, infectious disease specialists Dr. Daniel Doyle, Dr. Noel Blagg and Dr. Paula Aucoin, as well as Dr. Lisa Nelson, the school nurses, Community Heath Programs nurse Molly Rivest and Laura Kittross, public health program manager at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.
The medical team reported that there have been no cases of COVID-19 spread in any Berkshire County public school from student to student, or faculty to a student, Vaughan stated. As a result, support for opening the winter ski program should be considered, he said.
“It’s not the events themselves that are dangerous,” Cameron emphasized. “The issue is what precedes and follows the events.”
He stated that the students attending school in the morning would be at a disadvantage because they can’t participate as easily in late-day training and practice. The district’s 40 percent of nonresident school choice students, many from Pittsfield, would be especially hampered, he said.
The superintendent also pointed out that students who need rides also would be specifically challenged.
After nearly an hour of discussion, School Committee member Robert Munch’s motion to reopen the public school’s ski season, in whatever limited fashion is appropriate, was approved 4-2, supported by members Christine Mauro, David Rimmler and Vaughan, and opposed by members Molly Elliot and Francie Sorrentino.