Berkshire Hills eyes hybrid reopening model, but teachers wary

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Berkshire Hills Regional School District is leaning toward starting school with a hybrid model of remote learning and in-person school, while the teachers union wants to begin gradually, with remote learning only.

On the eve of the deadline for the district to tell the state how it plans to educate children during a pandemic, the School Committee voted unanimously Thursday to give the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education its tentative hybrid plan that would involve alternating days in school for rotating groups of students, mask wearing, and careful monitoring of student and staff health. It might involve four days of in-school learning and one day of remote learning, in which the school is cleaned, and possibly alternating weeks.

Officials are clear that the school year might not go according to any plan, and that any plan can be adjusted for public health and educational reasons.

The district has until Sept. 14 to settle on its plan and begin.

But, the Berkshire Hills Education Association, the teachers union, is firm in its support for a phased-in approach beginning with remote learning, saying in-person school amid an unpredictable public health crisis is asking teachers to be "frontline, essential workers" rather than educators.

"All it will take is one case," union leaders wrote in a letter read aloud by district Superintendent Peter Dillon. "Teachers cannot be asked to police students' bodies and behaviors."

The problem of how to educate students is bedeviling school officials, teachers and parents nationwide as they grapple with the constraints intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

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The district has harnessed a 29-person volunteer task force to help tackle the cumbersome logistics, and Dillon had sent out surveys to families and staff to gauge their needs and concerns.

Those survey results, Dillon said, revealed a divide between parents and teachers. Parents, on the whole, are more eager for in-person school, he said.

Anticipating questions and worries from the school community, Dillon has set three videoconference community forums for next week. Another School Committee meeting, on Thursday, will begin with public comment, since Thursday night's meeting was deemed too large to accommodate it.

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About 100 people logged on to the committee's meeting — and even more were locked out by technical glitches.

Dillon said the hybrid plan is negotiable and that the committee will work with the union.

School Committee members want flexibility in whatever plan is hatched.

"It shouldn't be a blank check to open and stay open forever," said member Daniel Weston.

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"We don't know what's going to happen," said Chairman Stephen Bannon.

Dillon said he and the task force had considered all the scenarios, and the range of challenges from busing to bathrooms to meals.

He said that face-to-face learning beats the computer, especially for students who don't have online access or have learning struggles. But, health concerns will factor in, and possibly trump all that.

"If we thought remote learning was better, we'd all sit at home and stare at our screens," he said.

Ultimately, he said, school plans depend on the virus.

"If there's a surge, then we're less happy about a hybrid."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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