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‘Untenable’: ARPS United, a group of Amherst parents, is pushing back against schools’ late start and advocating for in-person learning 

  • Members of Amherst Responsible People for Safe Return to School, from left: Kelly Correia with Igor and Iuri, who are beginning kindergarten and fifth grade at Crocker Farm School; Mary and Brian Klaes with children Nolan, entering 11th grade, Shannon, ninth grade, and Brady, fifth grade at Crocker Farm School; Rebecca Dingo, with her son, Theo, who will start first grade at Fort River School; and Rosie Cowell with her daughter, Anna, who is starting first grade at Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, gather Thursday outside Crocker Farm School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Members of a group called Amherst Responsible People for Safe Return to School (ARPS United), from left: Rebecca Dingo, with her son, Theo, who will start first grade at Fort River School; Mary and Brian Klaes with children Nolan, entering 11th grade, Shannon, ninth grade, and Brady, fifth grade at Crocker Farm School; Kelly Correia with children Igor and Iuri, who are beginning kindergarten and fifth grade at Crocker; and Rosie Cowell with her daughter, Anna, who is starting first grade at Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, gather outside Crocker Farm School, Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 08, 2020

AMHERST — Inequalities among students who attend Amherst’s public schools could be exacerbated if in-person learning continues to be delayed, especially if families with means hire tutors or have their children attend private schools, a newly formed parents and guardians group contends.

“Families without these resources will find it much harder to ensure that their children’s learning will keep pace with their more well-off peers,” reads the letter from Amherst Responsible People for Safe Return to School, or ARPS United.

The communication was among a slew of oral and written comments presented to the school committees and administrators from those advocating for in-class instruction at Amherst schools for all students as soon as possible, with no further delays beyond a planned Oct. 1 reopening.

But whether any instruction will take place in classrooms this soon may depend on the outcome of continued negotiations with the unions representing teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff.

At last week’s joint meeting of the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham school committees, Superintendent Michael Morris said he couldn’t promise that the youngest grades and other priority groups would be able to return to schools in October.

“That would be the aim — that’s sincerely my hope,” Morris said.

Under the initial phased-in plan, preschool through first grade in the Amherst schools and preschool through second grade in Pelham, beginner English language learners, Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE), students in specialized special education programs and homeless students would have all been able to return to school buildings when classes began Sept. 16.

An agreement negotiated with the union, though, has postponed that, even though the number of COVID-19 positive cases in the region is low enough to meet health metrics necessary to begin bringing students back to the buildings. 

Regardless, Morris said he expects high-quality distance and synchronous education to be provided to students, better than the emergency distance learning that was in place between March and June. Morris said he is in the process of developing schedules outlining when live teaching will take place that will be sent to families by principals this week.

“I’m deeply committed to virtual teaching being substantially improved from last spring,” Morris said.

Most students and teachers will use Google Classroom, with those up to second grade using Seesaw, which promotes more independence for the students, according to Morris.

Still, the lack of clarity about what instruction will look like when the school year begins remains problematic for some parents, who are worried about continued delays in getting people back into the school buildings.

Parents want answers

Mary G. Klaes helped form the ARPS United group that brings together parents disappointed about the late start to in-person instruction. She said they intend to advocate locally and at the state level. For instance, they plan to contact Gov. Charlie Baker and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to see if there’s any funding available to support families that choose to home-school, rather than keep their children in a remote learning setting.

“Why should our tax dollars go to a district not providing in-person instruction when families can find an in-person alternate with the funds?” Klaes said.

She also noted that the committees didn’t focus any time this week on these requests of parents and guardians.

“There was absolutely no discussion about the fact that families want their children to return to school with safety protocols while we have extremely low numbers of cases and test-positivity rate in our district,” Klaes said.

Many of the letter writers appealing to the school committees to begin in-person instruction soon stress the region’s low positivity and active case numbers. In Amherst over the past two weeks, the state’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that 6,956 tests were administered, with only seven positive cases, for a 0.1 % positivity rate. In Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, only one additional positive case was found over the 14-day period.

“Like many others, we moved to Amherst specifically for the schools, but this situation is untenable and has made us rethink the school’s commitment to our children,” wrote Alethea O’Donnell and Scott Tulay, parents of an 11th grader at Amherst Regional High School.

Stephanie Hockman, parent of eighth and ninth graders at the Amherst Regional Middle and High schools, wrote, “If we are unable to come together as a community to mitigate risks and educate our children, we will harm our society and encourage those that seek to abandon public education.”

“The district must use scientific data to inform their policies, not rely on people’s level of comfort or fear to determine standards for a safe return to school,” wrote high school parents Deb and Peter Christakos.

Rosie Cowell, who has two elementary-age children, wrote, “Here in western Massachusetts, the ongoing harms to children of remote learning outweigh the manageable risks to staff of reopening. Let’s be cautious and careful, and follow all the health and safety guidelines, but let’s reopen!”

Superintendent ‘taken aback’

Meanwhile, Morris also pushed back against guidance from DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley that remote instruction by teachers occur in classrooms.

In a memo, Riley wrote, “It is the Department’s expectation that teachers and critical support staff working in districts that have a remote learning model will report to their schools to work from the classrooms and educational spaces each day.”

Morris, who noted that he and the committees have disagreed with other DESE guidelines, said he was “taken aback” by the most recent guidance.

“My perspective is we should not be mandating that they do that. There’s so many complications people are managing,” Morris said. One example he pointed to is that paraeducators, even when in a building, don’t have classrooms of their own.

He added that mandating a physical location for educators doesn’t correlate with the quality of education students will receive because most teachers can do well with instruction from their homes or other locations — though teachers who need laboratories or other school equipment, or better internet access, might choose to teach in the buildings.

Using the buildings prematurely might also cause stress on staff members and custodial crews nervous about the spread of COVID-19 in poorly ventilated spaces.

“It created a problem we weren’t trying to solve,” Morris said of the DESE guidance.