NORTH ADAMS — North Adams Public Schools will change its process for switching between hybrid and remote learning, after positivity rate calculations kept students remote for an extra week — even as regional virus levels were falling.
The previous agreement between the district and the North Adams Teachers Association had set a threshold of 3 percent for regional positivity rates, above which schools were required to operate remotely.
When it calculated that metric, the district weighed higher positivity rates in small towns the same as lower positivity rates in much larger municipalities.
That means the district’s metric remained above the threshold in early February, keeping students remote at a time when the region’s average positivity rate — if weighted to account for the total number of tests in each community — was actually below the 3-percent mark.
On Thursday, the School Committee approved a change in the bargaining agreement to relax the automatic thresholds for remote learning and delegate those decisions to a new committee.
The addendum to the Memorandum of Agreement passed the School Committee 6-1, with member Tara Jacobs in opposition.
At its first meeting on Friday, the new Joint Labor Management Committee approved a return to hybrid learning starting on Monday. Students have been remote since the winter break.
The committee, which will meet at least once a week, is made up of three members from the district administration and School Committee and three members from the North Adams Teachers Association. In its deliberations, the committee will consider local risk factors, including data from the district’s new pooled testing initiative, in consultation with health officials and medical professionals.
All decisions require a two-thirds vote, and remote learning can still be triggered automatically if North Adams moves into the “red” on the state’s COVID-19 risk map.
Weighted averages of local positivity rates, calculated over a 14-day period, will be factored into the decision but will no longer serve as a sole determining factor.
Even before the change, the district relied on numerous indicators and local health officials to determine whether students should be in classrooms. The 3 percent threshold was critical, however, because the agreement mandated remote learning above that level, regardless of other factors.
That meant that if the positivity rate in North Adams went above 3 percent, the district would automatically switch to or remain in remote learning. The same thing would happen if the average positivity rate in the 15 municipalities that feed students and staff to the school was above 3 percent.
Superintendent Barbara Malkas said the threshold was based on warnings that positivity rates above that level could overwhelm the health care system.
“At the time when we were negotiating this, we really were basing it on the advice of our public health professionals,” Malkas told the School Committee.
The district, however, had been calculating the metric without weighing the relative number of tests in each municipality. That meant higher positivity rates in small towns, such as Peru, could easily offset lower positivity rates in larger municipalities.
When the school district announced in early February that it would stay remote, officials pointed to a low positivity rate in North Adams — 1.68 percent — but an “average” positivity rate in surrounding communities of 3.59 percent.
The district calculated that number by adding up the positivity rates in each municipality and dividing by the total number of communities.
That led to small towns pulling the metric up significantly. With four positive tests, Peru had a positivity rate above 15 percent, while Windsor saw a rate of nearly 7 percent because of five positives. The two communities together accounted for less than 1 percent of the total tests.
Meanwhile, Williamstown had a positivity rate well below the 3 percent threshold, while other communities also fell below or near the mark.
This week, the district switched its method and calculated the metric by dividing the number of positive tests over the total number of tests across the municipalities.
If the district had applied that method to the report on Feb. 4, it would have found a regional positivity rate of 2.7 percent. That means hybrid learning could have restarted for a week prior to the February holiday.
“It would have gotten us [back to hybrid] one week sooner if we had used a weighting method, or what we are doing now using an average based on the number of positive test results divided by the total number of tests across the 15 communities,” Malkas told The Eagle.
When the school first considered whether to return to hybrid in January, positivity rates were well above 3 percent in North Adams, which means remote learning would have continued regardless of the rates in nearby municipalities.
In her presentation to the School Committee on Thursday, Malkas said that high rates in a few small communities had been an issue for the district’s calculations.
The state’s Department of Public Health has urged districts to remain in-person as much as possible, citing evidence of low COVID-19 transmission rates in schools. But districts have pushed back on the idea of restarting full in-person learning before staff can be vaccinated.
“Until the governor gets vaccines for K-12 workers, both shots and a few weeks following to establish immunity, this is a nonstarter,” Malkas said.