LENOX — With prompt coronavirus vaccination of teachers and other school personnel now a federal and state priority, the town’s public school district is ramping up a drive to reopen full-day, in-person learning by the end of next month at Morris Elementary School.
At least 34 states, including New York and Connecticut, already are vaccinating school staff.
“I think we could do an excellent job getting school open in an orderly way if vaccinations were a higher priority and we had the time to make all the issues we can foresee be resolved in a good way for both teachers and students,” interim schools Superintendent William Cameron said at Monday’s School Committee meeting.
“There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation that this will happen sometime soon,” School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan agreed.
Lenox Memorial Middle and High School could reopen in phases, Vaughan added, citing statewide guidance from Gov. Charlie Baker and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley.
A major factor is the anticipated vaccination schedule for teachers and all other school employees, expected in mid- to late March, Vaughan stated. The availability of the new, single-dose vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson “might make that really happen,” he said.
It was not clear what vaccine would be available to teachers under the federal pharmacy program or the local clinics. President Joe Biden on Tuesday said his administration’s goal was to have every teacher receive at least one shot of vaccine by the end of March.
Cameron cited a “sense of urgency” among many parents in Lenox and elsewhere “who want their kids back in school full-time.”
But, he mentioned a “particularly interesting situation, and I’m using that term rather than something more colorful” — Riley’s decision to “insert himself” by seeking authority from the DESE board to require that all K-5 schools reopen full time and in person April 5. The board meeting potentially giving the commissioner that authority is likely in mid-March, Cameron said.
The superintendent noted that Riley seeks to deny fully-remote learning as qualified time toward the 170-day annual requirement for school instruction, except for parents who chose to keep their students out of school buildings for the full school year. Thus, hybrid instruction, combining in-person and remote learning, no longer would count toward the requirement.
Cameron cautioned that an April 5 start date for elementary schools would create “a perfect storm of complications,” including the time needed for reconfiguring buildings to accommodate larger classes and the difficulty for teachers facing more students in the classroom while still managing students learning from home at the same time.
“It may be necessary to reconsider having students who are remote to be instructed by teachers dedicated fully to that purpose,” Cameron pointed out. “This is very late in the year to be talking about that. These are complications that have to be worked out for this to move forward, at least on the schedule the commissioner is talking about right now.”
For the middle and high school to reopen full time, the complications are even greater, “but it can be done,” the superintendent noted.
“There are issues that have to be resolved, quite appropriately, with the Lenox Education Association, so, there’s a lot of work to be done in the next few weeks,” he declared.
Cameron cited the 6-foot distancing between students still required by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which creates a space problem at both schools, especially the middle and high school, where the potential reopening would be “sometime this spring.”
“The safe distancing that we can live with, based on actual infection rates, is something of real importance, because that, and vaccination of teachers, breaks the logjam,” he said.
Cameron is urging that reopening schedules be determined locally, instead of a one-size-fits-all target date, in view of vast differences in districts of different size and specific challenges.
Also at this week’s meeting, the committee approved the “Fall 2” sports season, including football in a co-op arrangement with Lee High, soccer and cross-country running, starting March 22, followed by spring sports, beginning April 26.
The committee also voted in favor of a resolution to suspend all MCAS testing this spring. The Pittsfield School Committee has adopted a similar resolution.
During a pandemic, “standardized testing cannot possibly measure student learning with any validity,” the resolution states. “MCAS testing during a public health crisis will only mean that all students will lose precious learning time, while black, Latinx, low-income, English learners and students in special education will fall even further behind.”
According to middle and high school Principal Michael Knybel, it would be a logistical nightmare to administer the tests because “it would shut down the school for a substantial amount of time for us to test all six grades of the seven grades we have.” He said the school schedule would be greatly disrupted in April and May.
“I pray that someone comes to their senses in Boston,” Knybel said.
The resolution seeks support for the MCAS suspension from Baker, Riley, state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, and state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
At Cameron’s suggestion, U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats from Massachusetts, as well as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, also would get copies of the resolution since waivers from MCAS testing must be granted by the U.S. Department of Education.
This story has been modified to reflect the federal and state commitment to provide vaccinations to all teachers.