For starters, preliminary plan to reopen Lenox schools pushes opening date to mid-September

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LENOX — The preliminary reopening proposal for the town's public schools, unveiled late Friday, calls for dividing most students into two groups, with 6 feet of separation, along with masks and additional health and safety requirements.

At Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and at Morris Elementary School, one group would attend in the morning, and the other in the afternoon.

LMMHS students would be in school weekdays, except Wednesdays, when they would study remotely, according to the tentative plan submitted to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by interim Superintendent William Cameron, on behalf of the town's School Committee.

Morris students in prekindergarten through Grade 5 could attend their half-day sessions five days a week.

Special needs students and those acquiring English language proficiency would be in school all day every day, Cameron explained.

To become reality, the tentative plan needs buy-in from the Lenox Education Association, which represents teachers and other staff at the two Lenox schools.

In order to prepare for the "hybrid" model of education during the COVID-19 pandemic, schools would not open to students until mid-September, rather than the previously scheduled Aug. 27 date, pending Lenox School Committee approval.

"Teachers will use the additional days before the start of the instructional year to develop their skills in the use of Canvas, the district's new learning management system, for remote learning," Cameron explained. "Under the preliminary plan, remote learning would take place for all students during the half-days they are not in school, on Wednesdays for LMMHS students, and for students whose parents or guardians decide not to have them return to school at this time."

School transportation will be provided, with temperature screening conducted for students before boarding the bus. For students arriving in school by car, temperature screening will take place in the vehicles upon arrival, the plan states.

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School buildings will be cleaned between morning and afternoon sessions, and buses will be cleaned thoroughly at the end of each run.

"Bus monitors, in addition to using non-contact thermometers to ascertain whether a student is running a fever, will ensure maintenance of safe spacing and mask-wearing throughout the trip to and from school," according to the plan.

"A hybrid model that avoids serving food in school to a large number of students seems to be the single best way to avoid occasions ripest for the spread of the virus even as a great many students and adults return to school on a daily basis," Cameron wrote in his proposal.

"The LEA is not in favor of beginning school with the hybrid model," union president Mary Cherry said by phone Saturday, adding that the union had "no input" into the preliminary plan released Friday. "Let's begin remotely until we get a safe, effective hybrid plan. We're not there yet, and we have a long way to go in negotiations. We look forward to being involved."

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During a meeting of more than half the membership Thursday, Cherry reported, the group was "98 percent in favor of starting school with remote learning," endorsing the same position as the statewide Massachusetts Teachers Association and the United Educators of Pittsfield. She is considering a survey of the entire LEA membership.

"The bottom line is that it feels like information changes almost daily about the potential spread of the virus," she commented. "Since early April, we have expressed concerns about the airflow in the school buildings and about having students in buildings that are not well-ventilated."

Cameron stressed the importance of the School Committee's negotiations with the union, which began Thursday. He acknowledged the local union's affiliation with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which has "publicly rejected a return to school-based instruction in any form that is not deemed `safe.' The meaning of `safe' must be determined not only by public health officials, but by collective bargaining, as well."

The superintendent told The Eagle "both sides are meeting to bargain in good faith."

The union has agreed to twice-weekly negotiating sessions with the School Committee until Aug. 25, Cherry said.

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As required by DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, the district's proposal will be reviewed by his department with feedback to the local district by Friday. The "final plan," with any modifications if needed, is due back in Riley's office by Aug. 10.

In the document submitted to the state, Cameron acknowledged that, while 3 feet of separation between students at their desks has been recommended as sufficient by many medical authorities, there is disagreement on that analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as from the local, statewide and national unions.

Under the 6-feet-of-separation approach, not all students could be accommodated in classrooms at the same time.

"The Lenox Public Schools has therefore joined other Berkshire County districts facing similar objections from their union locals in opting for a `hybrid model' rather than for a full, simultaneous attendance model," Cameron wrote.

He also conceded that "there are no good options available for resuming instruction under current conditions," citing opposition from the statewide teachers union reflecting skepticism by some faculty members "about the wisdom of doing anything but resuming 100 percent remote learning in September."

Cameron also noted "no less weighty concerns about the mental and physical well-being of students if school does not resume."

In his message to the community, Cameron acknowledged "the complexity of the issues we all confront. The School Committee, the district administration, and the LEA are working to reach agreement as soon as possible on how educational programming can start, and what it will look like."

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


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