Our Opinion: An unprecedented school year is underway

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Pittsfield Public Schools have kicked off a school year unlike any other, with students returning to learning remotely.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, everyone knew "back to school" was going to be different this fall — but that didn't make it any easier to prepare for this unprecedented undertaking.

Nevertheless, the city's students have hit the books on the 2020-21 academic year, thanks to the district's herculean efforts to adjust and adapt to a viral outbreak. To finish out the last school year, districts adopted remote-learning protocols incredibly quickly and without the benefit of preparation as the pandemic took hold. While these ad hoc plans allowed schools to limp into the summer, they left much to be desired, and districts everywhere faced the tall and timely task of developing a workable and viable educational model in time for the first day of school.

As with so many aspects of life under coronavirus, most are eager to get back to normative schooling. Yet the risks of returning too hastily to in-person learning were quickly realized at Pine Cobble School, where two faculty members tested positive for coronavirus just days into the new year. The Williamstown private school has been forced to reverse course and switch to remote learning.

In July, The Eagle editorialized on the need for the county's districts to bite the bullet and commit time and resources primarily to preparing a sustainable remote model. Pittsfield Public Schools, to their credit, did just that, and despite the uncertainty and anxiety of this undertaking for all involved, the district's kids are officially back to school, even if it's from their own homes.

Students' school days begin in the morning and end in the early afternoon, as per usual. Teachers will give lessons over Zoom, and students will get not only a lunch break but smaller "tech breaks" between blocks — a smart measure to give kids the chance to get up and away from the computer screen intermittently throughout the day. While students are learning from home, the teachers on the other end of the webcam will be working from the actual classroom, which will hopefully offer a modicum of normalcy for all involved.

This is a massive adjustment, and everyone — kids, parents, educators — deserve some patience. Teachers everywhere especially deserve praise for a wholesale reshaping of curricula and methodology to keep performing the crucial job of enriching and enlightening our youth, even as that job has become significantly harder. As with most systems, the strain will be felt disproportionately by at-risk students from vulnerable and nontraditional households. Districts must do their best to ensure that these children do not fall through the cracks in an already trying time. To this end, Pittsfield plans to distribute Wi-Fi hotspot devices to school community households that lack adequate internet access. And beginning today, the district will begin offering grab-and-go morning and lunchtime meals for kids three days a week.

As with anything new, there likely will be hiccups along the way. On a difficult path forward, the start of a new school year is one small step — but it's a step in the right direction.

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