PITTSFIELD — Her fourth-grader poised to return to an Allendale Elementary School classroom, Ann Marie Krzynowek was beset with the type of unease that accompanies the unknown.
Krzynowek, president of the Allendale Parent Teacher Organization, has kept a tight ship over the past six months when it comes to making sure her family wears masks outside the home, keeps their distance from others and sanitizes their hands.
Her daughter, Kayley, is excited return to school, where she will get to see her friends, teacher and specialists, Krzynowek said. But that also means for a few hours each school day, teachers and administrators will be charged with protecting her daughter from exposure to the coronavirus.
“Our lives are definitely not the same as they were before the pandemic, and obviously, going into this new environment, I’ll be uneasy until things get started,” she said. “I’m putting my faith in the school, and I’m trusting my gut, but thinking, ‘Am doing the right thing?’ ”
Krzynowek said she is more comfortable after Kayley’s teacher gave a presentation that used kid-friendly examples to illustrate the protocols they’ll be following when school reopens. For grades 3, 4 and 5, that day is Oct. 20.
But even before that, on Wednesday, students in prekindergarten, kindergarten as well as grades 1, 2, 6 and 9 are set to return to classrooms part-time for hybrid learning. Though elementary school students will be in the classroom for a few hours each weekday, students in middle and high school will be be on a rotation that has them in schools two or three days a week.
As long as coronavirus cases and test-positivity rates continue tracking below two key benchmarks, the district anticipates it will complete its transition to hybrid learning on Oct. 27, when students in grades 7, 8, 10, 11 and 12 begin their hybrid instruction.
As of late last month, according to Superintendent Jason “Jake” McCandless, about 500 students — or 10 percent of the PPS student body — had opted out of in-person learning for the entire school year and enrolled in the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy, which also begins Wednesday.
Krzynowek participated in a virtual parent information session the district offered last week, during which Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis outlined for participants the long list of new coronavirus health and safety protocols. Like other districts, Pittsfield is following guidance for reopening classrooms released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the state’s Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to Nadine Fox, the district’s school nurse supervisor.
Fox knows parents may be anxious over the thought of sending their child back to the classroom, but she offered assurances that the district, along with city and medical officials, have examined “every single scenario” that could arise. Beginning the school year entirely remote on Sept. 15, then returning select students back to classrooms about two weeks later has given educators the chance to fine-tune health and safety plans and best practices, she said.
“It has really been a nonstop work effort by the administration and the union leaders,” she said. “It’s a joint effort to make sure the students and the staff are really safe and healthy — everything from getting the right PPE (personal protective equipment) to examining every single scenario that could come up. And I think the way we phased into [hybrid learning] feels super comfortable.”
Some of the protocols are at this point familiar — everyone on school grounds without a medical or disability waiver must wear masks at all times, save for designated breaks, and keep 6 feet of distance between themselves and others, said district health and safety coordinator Eric Lamoureaux.
Face shields and physical barriers will be used in circumstances where mask wearing may not be possible, such as during speech or other therapies, he said. The district has purchased a bounty of PPE, he said, including disposable masks that can be distributed to students as needed.
Desks will be placed at least 6 feet apart in all classrooms, and the setup inside classrooms will allow students to enter and exit with at least the same amount of space between passersby and the nearest desk. Compared to prepandemic times, additional doors will be used by students to enter and exit school buildings, and monitored by staff when in use, Fox said.
“Every building has a different plan of how students will get in and out, which classes will go when, and how we’ll time it so there are no large crowds,” she said.
The district’s protocols are centralized in a working document that at last check was over 30 pages long. Lamoureaux noted that the document is regularly updated, as state and federal COVID-19 guidance evolves.
One thing that won’t change during the pandemic: Students and staff should not come to school buildings if they feel sick. If a student feels symptoms at school, Curtis told parents at the informational session last week that the district’s response plan kicks “into swift action.”
The plan involves a school nurse escorting the student immediately to the medical waiting room in their school — each building has one — or preferably outside, while assessing the student along the way. According to the plan, the nurse will phone the child’s guardian to pick them up, then notify local health and school officials. Crucially, Fox said, parents and guardians should make sure the district has their correct phone number in case they need to call about a medical concern.
“No ill child should remain in school,” said Dr. Alan Kulberg, a retired pediatrician and chairman of the city’s Board of Health.
Lamoureaux is tasked with communicating with the superintendent and the child’s family about when the student may return to school and any medical documentation they might need to produce. The district’s nursing staff will not diagnose or test students for the virus, said Fox, and children who show symptoms should consult their pediatricians, who may refer a child for a coronavirus test if they determine one is needed.
Some area pediatricians are set up to test children for the coronavirus, said Dr. Daniel Doyle of Berkshire Medical Center, who specializes in pulmonary medicine and has been working with county schools as students march back to classrooms. Doyle said BMC, which in August had handled about 90 percent of the county’s COVID-19 tests, has contracted with Abbott Laboratories to soon begin offering rapid PCR testing that can produce a result in 15 to 20 minutes.
“A child may not have to miss two or three days of school waiting for a test to come back,” Doyle said, noting the advantage of rapid testing.
Asked whether he’s seen evidence of a “second wave” locally, Kulberg said there has been “no observable uptick” of COVID-19 cases in Berkshire County. He said “clusters” of positive cases have arisen within households, and most of those cases can be traced back to interstate travel.
The region, he said, is “doing quite well” keeping the pandemic at bay, so local schools are well-positioned for in-person learning.
“Pittsfield, and I think Berkshire County in general, because of all of our efforts to control the virus in the area, are in a good position to open the schools for in-person learning, and it makes sense to start with hybrid,” he said.
Doyle agreed: “If you can’t have in-person learning in Berkshire county, you can’t have it anyplace.”