PITTSFIELD — With COVID-19 infections trending favorably, Pittsfield students will begin a gradual transition back to the classroom next week.
The School Committee on Wednesday voted to begin the process with vocational, career and technical students returning to school Monday, followed by special education students in substantially separate programs Feb. 8. The rest of the student body will begin transitioning to hybrid learning the week of Feb. 22.
“Taking into consideration Pittsfield’s distinct characteristics, the potential risks associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential damage associated with the educational, social, and emotional well-being of youngsters, the Pittsfield Public Schools anticipate a safe return to an in-person education model,” interim Superintendent Joe Curtis said in a statement.
But, an updated agreement with the United Educators of Pittsfield, the union representing teachers, nurses and other educators in the district, has yet to be formalized.
The committee took a series of unanimous votes Wednesday evening to set the process in motion, directing Curtis to ensure that 10th, 11th and 12th grade career, vocational and technical education students return to hybrid learning Monday, and to resume substantially separate special education classes the week after.
Curtis also was instructed by the committee to make a plan, which he will present at the board’s Feb. 10 meeting, for transitioning the rest of the student body from remote to hybrid learning “on or about” the week of Feb. 22.
“We want them back that week and as early as possible that week,” School Committee member William Cameron told The Eagle.
Mayor Linda Tyer said the committee, on which she sits, could not wait any longer to begin getting students back to classrooms. Vocational students need to return to their shops to complete hands-on learning requirements for graduating with professional credentials, she said. And she noted the negative effects school closures have on children’s social-emotional health.
Tyer said she is confident in the district’s health and safety protocols, personal protective equipment and air-filtration systems, and cited recent positive trends in the city’s coronavirus health data.
“It’s time to get our kids back to school. I understand and appreciate the concerns that people in our community have about the ongoing COVID challenges,” she said. “At the same time, we’re starting to see some promising trends with our case counts. We also know that the vaccines are on the horizon, and in addition to that, a significant amount of planning and investment went in to ensuring that our schools would be safe for hybrid, in-person learning.”
Pittsfield Public Schools started the school year in remotely in September, then transitioned students back to classrooms part time. In November, not long after the transition to hybrid was complete, the pandemic surged in Pittsfield, and the district, in consultation with city health officials, reverted to remote learning.
The district and union have been in ongoing negotiations around amending their agreement for working during the pandemic. One sticking point has been the data threshold under which hybrid learning proceeds. The district had said, as recently as last Friday, that it was forced to remain in remote learning until the city’s test positivity rate falls below 3 percent and there are fewer than four new daily cases per 100,000 residents.
On Wednesday, the city’s two-week average daily case rate was 43 per 100,000 and the test positivity rate was 4 percent.
The benchmarks were negotiated over the summer, when community spread was much lower. The School Committee voted unanimously Jan. 20 to reject a proposal for new, higher thresholds for resuming vocational classes, which still would have required further declines in the daily case rate before vocational classes could restart.
After the district and the union failed to reach agreement, the School Committee voted to resume vocational classes anyway, by the end of January. But, the committee’s legal counsel later advised that the wording on the council’s Jan. 20 agenda could open it up to an Open Meeting Law Complaint, so, the committee voted on the issue again Wednesday, according to Cameron.
In a statement released late Thursday, the executive board of the union said it opposes “the secret debate and subsequent vote” the School Committee took Wednesday. The board said it has been working with the district administration in good faith toward the shared goal of bringing students back to in-person learning as soon as safely possible.
The committee’s “decision to rush ahead is unwise, unfair and unjustified,” and called on the district to “demonstrate to the community that they have developed a detailed plan ensuring that all measures are being taken to keep our students, staff, and community safe and healthy,” the statement said.
“Since the health and safety of our community’s staff, students and their families are at stake,” union President Melissa Campbell said in the statement, “it is critical that these decisions be made in a transparent fashion, one that inspires confidence in the results.”
Tyer said the administration has been responsive to the union’s concerns about safety, noting investments made to repair air-filtration systems and the purchase of personal protective equipment.
“Negotiations with our unions have been ongoing for many, many months, and hundreds of hours have gone into this effort. We have done quite a bit to respond to the expectations of the teachers in terms of school safety and precautions at this time,” she said. “Sadly, though, we have stalled in our negotiations. It was time for decision-makers to step in and speak for our students and their families.”
Cameron said the committee views the benchmarks as guidelines that form one piece of the equation for deciding whether to reopen schools, and the authority to do so rests with the interim superintendent.
“We are not doing our duty to the students for whom the school system exists if we continue to keep students out of school when there is no transmission of the virus on record anywhere in a public school in Berkshire County since the start of this pandemic,” Cameron said.