Williams Elementary in-person classes

When the weather is nice, students will be encouraged to eat lunches outside, where tents and desks will be set up in one of the courtyards at Williams Elementary School in Pittsfield. Students are scheduled to return to in-person classes full-time next week at Pittsfield elementary schools. 

PITTSFIELD — As the district prepares to educate large numbers of students in classrooms for full school days this month, a district leader said hundreds of families are uncomfortable with the shift.

Under a mandate from the state, Pittsfield Public Schools beginning Monday will offer full days of classroom learning for elementary schoolers, who have been receiving a mix of classroom instruction and remote learning.

The change comes as the city, county and state contend with rising coronavirus infections, which have already prompted at least one local school district to switch to remote learning. Despite COVID-19 trends, Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis says the district is on track to offer full-time classroom instruction to middle school students beginning on the state deadline of April 28.


Since more students will be classrooms, there will be less space available to distance those students — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that 3 feet of social distance between students is acceptable.

“We will be following three feet of distancing, except for meal service, which will be six feet,” Curtis said.

For the first time in more than a year, the district will be serving students lunches at school starting this month. Individual schools have prepared meal service plans tailored to accommodate six feet of distance between students while they eat lunch with masks off, said Eric Lamoureaux, health and safety coordinator for Pittsfield Public Schools.

The plans include using gymnasiums, classrooms, and even outdoor tents when the weather permits for meals, the district leaders said. The district also purchased thousands of additional individual desks that seat one student, which in some schools are planned to replace communal tables.

“We’ve ordered tents, we’ve ordered portable folding chairs,” he said. “So you have some schools using their gym, their cafeteria. You have other schools because of the size of their classrooms and enrollment, they’re eating in the classrooms, with some outdoor eating as well. So that the school plans are very specific.”

Curtis highlighted the district’s health and sanitation protocols, which include mandatory masking on school grounds outside of lunch time, frequent sanitization, daily health questionnaires and contact tracing in response to confirmed cases.

“I do feel that our students are safe,” said Curtis. He said students and staff all must remain masked classrooms and sanitize their hands and desks. “With those practices in place — we have an abundance of supplies now and more on the way — education can continue safely,” he said.

Not all families are so sanguine, it appears.

Curtis told The Eagle that 268 families across all grade levels have alerted the district that they’re uncomfortable with sending children back to classrooms full time. Meanwhile, the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, the district’s fully remote academic offering that began at the start of the school year, is full, said Curtis, with 567 students enrolled and a waitlist.

Students had a half-day of school Thursday to give educators time to prepare for full-time classroom instruction — which will include livestreaming in-person lessons students to who don’t feel comfortable returning full time, but who aren’t in the virtual academy, according to Curtis.

“Live streaming will start for the families who have indicated their child will not return to a full learning day, on Monday for elementary school, and then on the 28th for middle school,” he said.

As coronavirus infections rise locally, Curtis is focused on minimizing disruptions to school operations that could result from students or staff members testing positive for COVID-19. As of Thursday, the district was reporting 28 confirmed coronavirus cases among students, and three among staff. Curtis said that contact tracers have not confirmed any instances of in-school transmission to date.

Still, each confirmed infection in a member of the school community sets off a chain reaction that involves reporting, alerting families and having students and staff quarantine as needed, Curtis said. That means cases can impact district operations even if the virus isn’t spreading in school.

“Things are interrupted. Communication needs to go out immediately, so other decisions go by the wayside,” he said. “A higher ... positivity rate in our city leads to more cases, which leads to more quarantining, which leads to more people that are suspected of being in close contact, and that has implications throughout the school system.”

Amid the uptick, Curtis said district leaders twice this week asked the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education whether delaying the state-mandated, five-day elementary in-person learning requirement is an option.

“And the answer was no,” said Curtis.

The district did not apply for a waiver from the state that would have permitted a slower return to full in-person education (the state granted at least 60). Curtis said the state wouldn’t have approved a waiver request from PPS, in part because of how much lower the city’s positivity and case rates were at the time of the deadline to request one, and also because the district was already in hybrid learning.

According to the city’s COVID-19 Community Impact Dashboard, Pittsfield’s two-week average test positivity rate now exceeds 5 percent — returning the city back to the state’s red “high-risk” category.

Lamoureaux suspects rising case rates are making people more nervous, but he said buildings will be in “good shape” when elementary students return for their first full day of school Monday. The spaces will be sanitized with ample supplies, he said.

That the district has not seen in-school transmission shows safety protocols at the schools are being followed, according to Lamoureaux.

“Nothing up to this point has come up as school spread. Staff are doing what they need to do, students are doing what they need to do to prevent transmission from happening,” he said, “at least in the building.”

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.

Cops and Courts Reporter

Amanda Burke is Cops and Courts Reporter for The Berkshire Eagle. An Ithaca, New York native, she previously worked at The Herald News of Fall River and the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise.