Lenox approves 'phased hybrid model' for school reopening

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LENOX — One step at a time. That's the prescription for a phased reopening of learning in Lenox Public Schools.

The plan, approved unanimously by the School Committee on Thursday night, calls for three weeks of remote education, starting Sept. 14, to be followed by in-school instruction resuming on a half-day model, with a tentative start date of Oct. 5.

Under the plan, Morris Elementary School students will be divided into three groups: Group A will attend school every morning, returning home at midday; Group B will attend every afternoon, and Group C will be in school all day, every weekday.

Middle and high school students will be placed in similar half-day groups, attending school daily, except on Wednesdays, when remote instruction will be offered to all students except those in Group C, who will attend all day, every day.

Group C students, those needing special assistance or those who are English language learners will return to the school buildings Sept. 14, attending full time on all days when school is in session.

Interim Superintendent William Cameron submitted the plan to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday, the deadline set by Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.

Cameron cautioned that the plan is subject to change and requires consent by the Lenox Education Association, the bargaining unit representing teachers and other staff at the two schools. LEA president Mary Cherry declined comment at this time.

The proposal is a more elaborate but similar version of the preliminary submission to the state July 31, Cameron told the School Committee members. He described it as a "phased hybrid model for allowing students to return to school."

"The key elements must be successfully negotiated with the Lenox Education Association," he pointed out. Bargaining with the union is continuing, he added.

"This plan could be completely different by the time school opens," the superintendent pointed out, noting that it's not clear which aspects will be accepted by the union and it's not known what conditions will be for the coronavirus in the region at any time going forward.

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So, he told the committee members, it's a tentative plan but "it is not in any case enforceable at this point. What is enforceable is that we have to resume instruction."

Any parents or guardians who decide that their student should not return to in-school instruction will be provided with remote learning, Cameron said. Teachers will receive two weeks of training in advance, in order to deliver "the most effective ways to construct and deliver remote instruction."

The school calendar, also approved unanimously by the School Committee, specifies 12 days of professional development for teachers before Sept. 14 to develop proficiency with the Canvas distancing-learning management system serving 72 percent of Berkshire County students, Cameron said.

The system, also used by some colleges, is being introduced in response to "complaints we received about the somewhat disorganized, haphazard way" remote learning was handled during the spring, when the schools were abruptly shut in response to the pandemic.

All in-school activities will require 6 feet of distancing, masks must be worn at all times, except during mask breaks, and students and staff will engage in frequent and thorough hand-washing and sanitizing.

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Students in prekindergarten through Grade 1 will not be required to wear masks, but they strongly will be encouraged to do so, Cameron said.

The cleaning of all school facilities will take place during morning and afternoon sessions, as well as at the end of the school days for students and workdays for staff. Washrooms will be cleaned at least once per hour.

Decisions about reopening school for instruction or for closing if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the region will be made in close consultation with the Lenox Board of Health, the Tri-Town Health Department and the state Department of Public Health.

Other details of the plan:

- No meals will be served to students, except to Group C, at either school while the hybrid model continues;

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- Students will have their temperatures tested before boarding school buses; if they are driven or drive themselves, temperatures will be tested before drop-off or entering the building. Any student with a fever of 100.4 or higher will not be admitted;

- School bus spacing, according to guidance from the state education department, also requires masks to be worn aboard the bus;

- During the school day, any students displaying symptoms linked to COVID-19 will be quarantined at school until a parent, guardian or other authorized individual picks them up. Staff members displaying such symptoms will be instructed to leave work;

- All safety protocols established by the state Department of Public Health and the Lenox Board of Health will be enforced. The local health board has reviewed the plan and supports it, Cameron said. Contact tracing, if needed because a student has become infected, will be handled by the Lenox Board of Health.

Describing the health board members as "very cooperative," the superintendent singled out Dr. Noel Blagg, a retired infectious disease specialist who practiced at Berkshire Medical Center, lives in Lenox and has worked closely with school nurses on the health protocols.

Cameron also praised the administrative team, especially the school nurses, citing "the enormous amount of time spent trying to figure out what to do. Given the information we have to work with, this is the best we can come up with. Every option has serious problems."

School Committee member Molly Elliot congratulated Cameron and others involved for their hard work on the plan. "This is so messy, trying to figure out how to move forward," she said, citing epidemiologist Dr. William Hanage at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who told The Boston Globe that "there is no perfect solution, there are just some solutions that are less bad than others."

Without further comment and no discussion offered by those attending the Zoom session, the committee accepted by a 6-0 vote Cameron's plan for submission to the state.

The state Education Department required all school districts to create and submit a plan by Friday for hybrid schooling, alongside two other plans: one for entirely remote schooling and the other for a full-time, in-person return. Preliminary versions were sent to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on July 31.

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


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