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Motorists line up for COVID-19 testing in November at Taconic High School in Pittsfield. The city's School Committee is moving to resume in-person instruction, amid a challenge from the United Educators of Pittsfield union, which filed an unfair labor practice complaint Tuesday. 

PITTSFIELD — With 200,000 masks stockpiled and 600 air purifiers on their way, Pittsfield school officials indicated Wednesday they are ready to bring more students and staff back into classrooms. That confidence is colliding with public doubt.

In remarks to a virtual meeting of the Pittsfield School Committee, teachers and residents made it clear that they aren’t convinced the city’s schools can safely accommodate a full return. Teachers, in particular, object to the committee’s push to have all students back in school in late February, a move that their union, United Educators of Pittsfield, says violates an agreement reached with the city that governs a return to in-person instruction. The union filed an unfair labor practice complaint Tuesday seeking to overturn a decision the committee made to return to in-person learning.

“We wanted the return to be safe,” said Bridget K. McKeever, a special education teacher. “How is that appropriate? Where is the consideration for us as professionals?”

After hearing 30 minutes of public comments on the reopening plan, William Cameron, a committee member, said important issues had been raised. The “pointed questions,” he said, are justified. “We’ve been put on notice about things that we should be concerned about."

Jennifer Teichert, the parent of a Pittsfield High School student, was among several who questioned how educators could be planning a reopening while unwilling to hold their own meetings in public.

“You absolutely need to meet in person,” said Steve Peplowski, the father of a Pittsfield High student. He called on the union and administrators to put aside differences and “rise up to the challenge that we face. ... There is a lot of bad blood. Please work together to resolve these.”

In the middle are parents and students who say they are eager to get back to school, particularly if allowed to engage in athletics. Patrick Rindfuss, a junior at Pittsfield High, urged members of the School Committee to keep sports in the equation, arguing that it would help improve morale and combat depression and mental health challenges.

“For many students, sports are motivation. A lot of students’ grades have slipped since we went into lockdown,” he said.

Kieran Coscia, another student, said he dislikes remote learning.

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“It’s really not working for us,” he said. Getting back to school, Coscia said, will help students across the board, especially if allowed to join athletics.

Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis said the 600 air purifiers due to be delivered this month, at a cost of about $145,000, will augment existing ventilation systems and join 150 devices already in use.

“This is an additional layer that we’re putting in place,” Curtis said of air purifiers. “They’re all meant to complement and work together.” Regular sanitization and other measures also fight possible spread of the coronavirus.

Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis. (copy)

Pittsfield Public School Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis.

Curtis acknowledged that if transmission occurs, single classrooms, or whole schools, could revert to remote learning.

City Council member Helen Moon, a registered nurse, urged officials to take a hard look at risks to the public related to the reopening plan.

“Everybody is here because we care about our students,” Moon said. Any steps must avoid putting anyone in jeopardy, including school employees. “They did not sign up to put their own families at risk in a deadly pandemic.”

Dennis Powell, a committee member, said he will arrange to visit all of the city’s schools to see firsthand the conditions that might affect a safe return.

“I want to see, and I want to make sure. I just need to see this for myself,” Powell said.

In its unfair labor practice complaint to the state Department of Labor Relations, the union alleges that a decision Jan. 27 by the School Committee to return to in-person teaching violates a memorandum of agreement reached with the union. The union views that vote as an example of unilateral decision-making, in a collective bargaining environment, and constitutes bargaining in bad faith.

The complaint asks the state to order the committee to rescind its January decision about the format for instruction and have teachers resume remote learning that has been in place for much of the pandemic. The committee went into executive session Wednesday for more than an hour to discuss collective bargaining issues.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass, investigations editor, joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant and CommonWealth Magazine.