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For shuttered schools, path ahead amid virus fears clouded by uncertainty

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It's the burning question on the minds of students, parents and staff: Will schools countywide and statewide be able to reopen after April 6?

That's the target date set by Gov. Charlie Baker to review the three-week shutdown now in effect because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"As the projected date for the reopening gets closer, there will have to be a reassessment of whether public health would be served, or have no particular effect, if the schools were reopened," said William Cameron, interim Schools Superintendent in Lenox and chairman of the Berkshire County Education Task Force.

Cameron, who's also vice-chair of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, Berkshires Division, told The Eagle that if the health emergency persists or intensifies, "they'll have to be closed for another period."

In an interview this week, he emphasized that "the dates are meant to be points of reassessment rather than promises of when things are going to reopen. I don't think anyone wants to say right now, `Close the schools until next September.' If it turns out to be that way because of health conditions in the country, then that's what will happen."

In the best-case scenario, if schools can be reopened the week of April 6, it's still to be determined whether they would close again for the scheduled one-week vacation starting April 20, Cameron said.

"It would obviously be educationally prudent to operate the schools during the vacation week," he said. But if attendance is very low because of scheduled family and staff vacations, then there may not be "a sound educational purpose served," he added.

If schools are reopened sometime this spring, he said, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has determined that the last day of school will be the 185th day on the academic calendar in late June, which varies by district.

In terms of disruption to the curriculum and the impact on student learning, Cameron predicted that "the longer this goes on, the greater becomes the possibility that some kind of online educational programming will be offered."

He noted that there have been discussions among Berkshire County superintendents on whether to pursue a coordinated, countywide effort to offer online educational programming to all students, rather than piecemeal, district-by-district.

"Many districts don't have the resources to do that," he said, so a collaborative approach may be the solution. But the efforts among the county's 17 districts are still under discussion, and a great deal of coordination is needed.

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"This is a serious proposition that's being investigated," he said. "The only way to ensure that it's the highest possible quality is if it's countywide."

Nevertheless, remote learning, while beneficial, is hardly a substitute for direct instruction in schools, Cameron said. "Many students are not going to attend to online instruction the way they would attend to what's going on in the classroom, since attendance isn't taken and there are many distractions at home. Some students require the motivation of being in school in order to focus their attention."

Another issue complicating potential remote learning: Virtual special education services are difficult to offer online, but would be legally required for students with special needs. In the Lenox district, about 80 students — just over 10 percent of total enrollment — require specific, custom-tailored services known as individualized educational programs.

"It is important we establish a steady routine that includes an educational/enrichment experience, exercise, practice mindfulness/meditation and stay socially connected in a healthy way, by email or phone calls," said Michael Knybel, principal at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School.

One concern he cited about potential remote learning is student safety — "That this doesn't become an online platform where students might be hurtful to each other. We don't want to make another avenue for cyberbullying, I want to make sure it's foolproof, strictly business, communication of student-to-teacher and not student-to-student."

Knybel said that "we have plenty of students that will do fine online, but there are learners who would find it difficult." The school would have to make "an added effort — we would really have to be conscious to address it."

He expressed the hope that "we all support each other through this pause in our school year. We can stay connected, communicate with families, teachers and students to see what comes next. I just hope for the best, this is the biggest concern I've faced in my 32 years as an educator."

Also complicating the spring outlook is the potential rescheduling of upcoming statewide MCAS tests, as well as pre-college exams such as the SAT and the ACT.

Statewide decisions are subject to day-to-day adjustment, Cameron said, since "I don't think anyone could have foreseen things getting this bad, this quickly. There's an enormous amount to be learned from going through this."

He stressed the need for families to double down on social distancing guidance from public health specialists for young people, avoiding congregating in large groups such as hangouts, parties, play dates and sleepovers.

Online socializing, often decried, helps avoid isolation in the current crisis, since social media offers "the capacity for people to stay in touch with each other even though they're not in physical proximity to one another," Cameron declared.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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