South Hadley schools prep to bring students back

  • Plains Elementary School in South Hadley. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 20, 2020

SOUTH HADLEY — As South Hadley Public Schools aim to begin phasing students back into in-person learning next month, school officials are focused on revamping building ventilation systems and establishing a cohort schedule to allow for a safe return.

At a School Committee meeting earlier in the week, South Hadley interim Superintendent Diana Bonneville said that bringing students and staff back into school buildings is “my number one priority right now.” To do so, the district needs to meet certain safety metrics, such as low COVID-19 prevalence in town and adequate ventilation systems in buildings.

School officials believe that they are on track to meet these metrics. School Committee members voted unanimously at the meeting to move forward with bringing high-needs special populations students in preschool and kindergarten back for full-time, in-person learning beginning Nov. 5. All kindergarten and preschool students will join them on Nov. 23.

Grades 1-12 will commence with in-person learning on a hybrid basis on Nov. 30 — earlier than the district’s previous plan to begin this phase in early January, which school officials shifted based on the town’s COVID-19 metrics. The town has recorded four new cases in the week between Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, when data was last reported, and four new cases the previous week.

Not all communities are moving forward with their original reopening plans: Northampton and Amherst-Pelham public schools have pushed back or supsended their reopenings due to rising COVID-19 cases in some Hampshire County communities. On Wednesday, the state flagged Amherst, Sunderland and Holyoke as “red” communities, meaning that they exceed eight daily cases per 100,000 residents and are considered high-risk locations for COVID-19 transmission. In Amherst and Sunderland in particular, local officials have attributed this status change to an outbreak among University of Massachusetts Amherst students that began Sept. 18.

South Hadley is currently classified as “green,” the second-lowest of four levels of risk.

Air quality control

In addition to COVID-19 metrics, the district’s reopening also depends on its ability to meet ventilation standards in its buildings.

Bonneville said at the meeting that she is “confident that when we do return to school, hopefully Nov. 5, that air quality will not be an issue.”

Meeting air quality targets has required substantial effort and investment. Mosier Elementary School requires around $7,000 in repairs and is “well on its way to being fixed,” Bonneville said at the meeting, and two rounds of retrocommissioning of school buildings have cost around $30,000 and at least $27,000 each.

Bonneville did not yet have an exact figure for repair costs at South Hadley High School, but said that those repairs are expected to be less costly than Mosier’s, while Plains Elementary has few issues.

The town has offered to pay for the $27,000 retrocommissioning, according to Bonneville, and a local company, which Bonneville has yet to name, has informally vowed to donate $15,000. But due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, the expenses are “definitely things we never budgeted for,” Bonneville said.

Each classroom will have its own air purifier, Bonneville said, and all schools will have two large tents to be used for mask breaks.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.