LENOX — Amid pushback from the teachers union and cautionary guidance from the superintendent, the School Committee this week voted 4-1 to consider reopening lower grades at Morris Elementary School for full-time, in-person learning.
The decision, driven by pressure from some Morris parents to normalize schooling in the lowest grades, followed concern voiced about a recent surge in area COVID cases.
Like most Berkshire public school districts, Lenox schools are operating under a hybrid model in which students receive some instruction remotely to limit the number of students in the building as a way to stem the spread of the coronavirus. But, some parents have been pushing for a return to normal for students in the lower grades, for whom remote learning is more challenging.
After considering task force reviews of numerous grade levels, the School Committee voted at its remote meeting Monday to establish a single task force made up of committee members, parents and educators for a study limited to Morris.
Interim schools Superintendent William Cameron, noting increases in positive tests and coronavirus caseloads in the Berkshires and adjacent counties, pointed out that “a small number” of staff and students have self-quarantined because they were in close contact with someone who tested positive.
While no student or staff member has developed coronavirus symptoms, he said, an increasing number of students have returned to remote learning, rather than attending classes in person.
Citing a report by school district nurse Jennifer Drees, “there is growing concern in the school community about the risk of contagion,” Cameron said.
Lenox Education Association President Mary Cherry, a sixth grade teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, acknowledged that the current hybrid model presents child care and other challenges for families, including school staffers who face child care issues while teaching.
“We all would prefer to be fully in person with all of our students,” she said. “But, none of this can turn on a dime.”
Cherry singled out several Morris parents, including Oren Cass, who have been urging a swift return to full-time, in-person learning.
“He has no idea of the magnitude of what needs to occur to implement his demands,” she told committee members at the meeting, which was attended remotely by 61 members of the Lenox Education Association union, including teachers and other staffers.
Cherry challenged parents’ statements that Morris has adequate space for full 16-member classes, in view of coronavirus social distancing requirements by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is not the time to be considering full, in-person instruction,” the union leader asserted. “Too much is at risk.” Cherry also refuted claims that “we are doing our children a disservice with the hybrid model at the Morris school.”
According to lower-grade teachers, she said, students are seeing growth in math, reading and writing skills thanks to the current daily schedule of 2½ hours of in-person, small-group, individualized instruction.
Time spent with each student would decrease, rather than increase, if full, in-person instruction is restored now, Cherry said. Moreover, families that choose to keep their children at home for full-time remote education would face disruption and “a logistical nightmare,” she added.
Cherry also commented that her 72 members who attended the Nov. 2 School Committee meeting were “shocked, disappointed and insulted by the way a group of parents were allowed to conduct themselves.”
She stated that “teachers’ rights were violated” by parents who disclosed personnel information and relayed anonymous comments.
“No one should be allowed to take over your meetings,” she urged the committee. “Protocol should be established and maintained.”
Morris Elementary parent Lucie Stites pointed to a recent uptick in local positive COVID tests and urged a “fact-based decision” because “we’re at a difficult time with regard to the virus.”
Nevertheless, several other parents strongly urged a return to full-time, in-person instruction.
Cass apologized “if I was rude at all at last week’s meeting, if I was speaking out of turn at any point.”
Cameron, noting space limitations at Morris, described visits to the nearby Boston University Tanglewood Institute campus, the former Berkshire Christian School at Hope Church on Kemble Street and Kripalu to scope out potential availability of space at those locations. He emphasized the importance of considering feedback from teachers.
“It would be imprudent to disregard their views,” Cameron said.
“We need to proceed with caution here,” he said. “Our schools are not closed. Our schools are open; not full time nor all day long, but we need to look carefully at which model is better.”
He acknowledged that, while the current hybrid approach is “a burden for teachers, and for parents,” a task force needs to explore what the benefits of a different model might be.
Casting the lone dissenting vote against assembling a task force, committee member Francie Sorrentino, a staff member at the middle and high school, praised the current model as “well thought-out and a well-negotiated plan.”
“It’s difficult all around; this is not ideal,” she agreed. “[But], this is not the time. Maybe after the holidays, we could revisit this. You don’t realize what teachers go through day in and day out; I witness it. They deserve all the praise and thanks, but they’re not getting it.”