NORTH ADAMS — As many as 90 percent of North Adams elementary school students will be in classrooms again by early April, according to Superintendent Barbara Malkas.
With a push from the state to resume in-person learning, elementary school students are set to return April 5 and middle schoolers on April 28, after the district’s spring break. There is no set date for high schoolers to return.
Malkas told The Eagle that she expects 85 to 90 percent of elementary school children to return, with the rest remaining in full remote learning. But, she remains wary about the timeline for restarting in-person learning, including opportunities for coronavirus spread during spring break, and how the influx of students might change the levels of risks for teachers and staff, including many who have not had the chance to get vaccinated yet.
“The guidance from [the state] indicates we do not need to have staff vaccinated in order to return to school, and that’s [because] there’s been very, very little community spread in schools and very, very little transmission between students and staff,” Malkas said. “We’re doing the right mitigation strategies, and we’re enforcing them.”
With more students in classrooms and reduced space between those students — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says just 3 feet is recommended — Malkas and other school leaders and staff worry that the equation might change.
“Teachers will say that we’re about to change physical distancing, we’re putting more students on buses, we’re increasing the risk for community spread,” Malkas said. “I guess we’re not really going to know how it’ll work until we try it.”
In North Adams, bringing most elementary students back full time will require the schools to shift to the minimum 3 feet of distancing, Malkas said. A growing body of research has shown that there might not be significant benefits to 6 feet of distance, compared with 3 feet, as long as students are wearing masks and practicing other precautions.
Still, some parents and teachers across the country have expressed concern about how high levels of community spread might pose a risk. In Berkshire County, new daily cases have climbed to a rate similar to mid-November and continue to rise at the same pace as during the previous surge.
The good news, Malkas pointed out, is that the weather has started to improve. Open windows will improve ventilation in buildings and on buses.
North Adams parents have taken to Facebook to voice concerns about buses in particular, with some calling the expected protocol “unsafe.” They asked whether the district would add more buses or institute bus monitors to ensure that students follow protocols.
Malkas told The Eagle that she would like to expand bus capacity and hire bus monitors but that those positions had been challenging to fill, even pre-pandemic, and the retirees who often fill those roles still might be waiting for their vaccines.
“I can’t double the amount of buses, because where would I get the drivers?” she said. “Those jobs tend to be ideal for retirees, yet that’s the very population being wanted not to have contact with anybody.”
For the most part, Malkas remains unconcerned about student behavior and far more worried about community practices. She said that in every instance where the school community had more than one positive case, the virus spread could be traced back to “behaviors outside the school.”
That extracurricular behavior is the crux of Malkas’ concern about spring break. The district’s weeklong recess begins April 19.
“I was talking with my fellow superintendents, and we’re all really concerned with spring break coming in mid-April,” she said. “That’s a big opportunity for kids to gather, for behaviors where people travel to other states that may not have the mask culture we see in the Northeast.”
Middle schoolers will return to classrooms full time the following week, per the state’s mandate.
Malkas said the district did not apply for a waiver that would have allowed a slower return to in-person education — 58 of them have been granted so far by the state — since officials wanted to be able to plan ahead, provide consistency and avoid adding extra days to the end of the school year.
“The waiver is very structured and limited,” she said. “My feeling is, if we had applied for a waiver and it was not granted, then any days that we were not meeting the timeline as defined by the Department of Education, we would not be meeting [mandated] student learning time, and we would have to make that up.”