School Committee chairs Allison McDonald and Sarah Hall: In-person schooling for students is a ‘moral obligation’

  • Diane Chamberlain, the principal at Fort River, stands in a class room that used to be one half of a quad of class rooms. To prepare for students coming back in the fall Fort River has taken out the panel barrier in the middle and added a full wall on one side making the four class rooms into two. gazette file photo

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees unanimously approved a plan to start the school year with virtual learning for most students, with in-person learning phasing in over eight weeks, conditional upon the most conservative health metrics in Massachusetts.

We remain confident that our deliberate and thoughtful process resulted in a cautious plan that considers all elements of risk, from risk of exposure to COVID-19 to risk of harm to students if they are unable to return to school in person.

The committees began our planning in early June and immediately faced some hard truths: COVID-19 may be here for a very long time, yet because in-person instruction is essential to children’s well-being, we couldn’t keep schools closed until the virus is eradicated.

We also knew that for some students, remote instruction presents major challenges to accessing learning, and we identified these students as priority groups for in-person learning.

We set out to define the safety measures, phasing schedule and health metrics that would maximize in-person learning to meet the educational needs of all students; deliver the highest quality remote-learning experience possible; and, above all, protect staff and student safety. At the same time, we deeply respect families’ personal choices around student learning and remain committed to letting parents choose remote learning — for any reason — for their students.

However, while over 70% of priority-group families have opted for in-person learning, the union that represents our teachers, clerical employees, and paraprofessionals (the APEA) has submitted proposals that would all but require the districts to force all students into all-remote learning for the foreseeable future.

Some argue that at-home learning is safer for everyone. Although the risk of COVID-19 exposure may be lessened if schools remain closed, the risk of other, known harms to children increases dramatically. Anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are on the rise among otherwise healthy young people, and reports of neglect and abuse to child-protection agencies have plummeted since March because there are far fewer adults available to make such reports. And families with limited means may be forced to leave young children unsupervised or in the care of older siblings in order to work.

Others express worries that reentering schools may lead to super-spreading or a surge in infections. Our decisions around reentering or closing schools are guided by recommendations from World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, Harvard’s Chan Institute for Public Health, and other reputable public-health and epidemiological resources.

If community spread is very low, the risk of spread in school buildings is also very low. If community spread exceeds our guidance, or if a clear trend emerges in the weekly data but the spread has not yet exceeded our guidelines, the district will transition to 100% virtual learning for all.

Some claim that the district’s buildings and facilities are not safe, but, in fact, our facilities and maintenance protocols will meet or exceed the science-based safety guidance established during this pandemic. Air purifiers with HEPA filtration and UV-light disinfection systems have been purchased and will be used in every classroom.

Ventilation will meet or exceed the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers standards, and a comprehensive HVAC review by an external consultant is underway and will identify any additional actions needed.

Along with these indoor considerations, the district has purchased tents for each school and has committed to providing as much outdoor time as possible for in-person learning.

We have heard claims that either the district doesn’t have appropriate personal protective equipment or student compliance in and out of school will be dangerously inconsistent. The district, in fact, has a 12-week supply of hand sanitizer, face masks, and enhanced PPE. Our phased reentry, with small groups of students in the schools for the first two months, along with training for staff and guidance for families about the use of PPE, will allow for a focus on developing habits and practices around PPE compliance.

Our low community spread throughout the summer is evidence that we are all already doing what’s necessary to limit spread.

Some also say that face-to-face learning will be worse than an at-home learning because of the district’s new protocols. Yet, there is simply no evidence to support this assertion, which assumes that everyone’s at-home environment is conducive to the needs of one or more students accessing virtual education every day.

Also, many of us have discovered that in-person gatherings with family or close friends, with appropriate face-covering and distancing, are more meaningful and valuable than any online meeting. Why assume then that it would be any different for children in school?

We can’t keep our kids out of school until the risk of COVID-19 is eliminated. We have a moral obligation to provide the option of in-person education for students — and the district is implementing an approach that does this while maximizing safety. We hope the APEA leadership will shift their energies to working with the district to implement this plan.

Sarah Hall is the chair of the Pelham School Committee and Allison McDonald is the chair of the Amherst School Committee and of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.