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School systems shut down across Valley

  • Bridge Street School in Northampton dismisses students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the end of a previously scheduled half-day. Superintendent John Provost announced Friday that Northampton Public Schools would be closed to students from March 14 to March 28. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The last bus leaves Bridge Street School in Northampton shortly after noon on Friday at the end of a previously scheduled half-day. City public schools will be closed to students until at least March 28. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the end of a previously scheduled half day. Superintendent John Provost announced Friday that Northampton Public Schools would be closed to students from March 14 to March 28. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon on Friday, March 13, 2020, at the end of a previously scheduled half day. Superintendent John Provost announced Friday that Northampton Public Schools would be closed to students from March 14 to March 28. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Bridge Street School parents wait outside the Northampton elementary for the dismissal of students shortly after noon Friday at the end of a previously scheduled half-day. Superintendent John Provost announced Friday that Northampton Public Schools would be closed to students through March 28. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • John and John Wyda walk into the municipal offices to pay an excise bill before the office closes Monday because of the COVID-19 virus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Tarantino walks into the municipal offices to pay his water bill before the office closes Monday because of the COVID-19 virus. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton City Hall, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students leave Easthampton High School at the end of their school day, Friday, Mar. 13, 2020. Classes at the school have been cancelled for two weeks and are slated to resume on March 30. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Students leave Easthampton High School at the end of their school day, Friday, Mar. 13, 2020. Classes at the school have been cancelled for two weeks and are slated to resume on March 30. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Students leave Easthampton High School at the end of their school day Friday. All public school classes have been canceled for two weeks and are slated to resume on March 30. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Students leave Easthampton High School at the end of their school day, Friday, Mar. 13, 2020. Classes at the school have been cancelled for two weeks and are slated to resume on March 30. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS



Staff Writer
Saturday, March 14, 2020

NORTHAMPTON — Many schools in the Valley announced closures Friday over COVID-19 concerns.

Northampton Public Schools, Easthampton Public Schools, Amherst Public Schools, Hadley Public Schools, Hatfield Public Schools, Gateway Regional School District and Belchertown Public Schools will close for two weeks starting Monday. South Hadley Public Schools will close Friday evening and are tentatively rescheduled to open on March 31.

School officials cited social distancing, falling attendance, and concerns for vulnerable staff, students and families as reasons for closing.

It was an “extremely difficult” decision to close, Northampton Superintendent John Provost said.

“While we still have no confirmed cases [of the virus] in Hampshire County,” Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said, “we know that due to the lack of testing we will likely see cases.”

He added: “The best way to slow the spread of the virus is social distancing. That’s why we’re making this decision.”

Northampton municipal buildings, including the Senior Center, will also be closed starting Monday, though the city government will still be operating, Narkewicz said.

Amherst Regional Public Schools Superintendent Michael Morris wrote in a letter posted Friday on the district’s website: “I have made the decision to close all ARPS schools for a minimum of two weeks beginning next Monday, March 16. This means schools will be closed with a tentative return date of Monday, March 30. That date will be reassessed throughout the two-week closure period based on the evolving COVID-19 situation across the state.”

He added, “We know that there are a tremendous number of questions that will arise from this decision.” More information will be posted on the district’s website on Friday afternoon, he said.

In South Hadley, interim Superintendent Diana Bonneville tweeted that schools will close at 6 p.m. Friday, with tentative plans for students to return on March 31.

“Our daily attendance rates have dropped 5-10% overnight, and we expect this to progress,” she wrote in a statement on Facebook about the closure.

Hadley Superintendent Anne McKenzie wrote in a message to school faculty, students and families that “COVID-19 may have a more significant impact on vulnerable populations (elderly, people with certain underlying conditions). We have staff, students and families with individuals who would be considered vulnerable. Without accurate information, it is difficult for these individuals to know if it is in their best interest to attend school at this time.”

“I cannot underscore enough how difficult a decision like this is to make,” she wrote. “I am not making this decision lightly.”

Holyoke school and city officials are scheduled to make an announcement “with updated information regarding measures taken in response to COVID-19” on Friday evening, according to the Holyoke Public Schools website.

Superintendents around the state had a conference call Friday morning with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel to talk about COVID-19. They did not suggest a widespread closure of schools and suggested closures only under specific circumstances, such as in the event that a staff member or student diagnosed with COVID-19 has been in close contact with students. The state officials made a series of recommendations, such as canceling extracurricular activities and having lunch in classrooms, and are requiring schools to ramp up cleaning, according to a statement from the education department.

“I’m very disappointed the governor has not issued a statewide closure,” said Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton. “It’s been left up to cities and towns.”

She commended the decisions of superintendents to close.

“This is a public health crisis,” she said. “If we don't take steps now, it’s going to get worse.”

But with the closure of schools, Sabadosa has heard concerns from working parents about child care. “We’ve had parents who've written and said … they don’t get paid unless they go to work.”

She is also concerned about students who depend on the free and reduced cost lunch program. If schools close, only schools where more than 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals will be reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to DESE.

Many Valley schools, including Northampton, are not included in that. Sabadosa said she is advocating for an expansion. “I think it’s misguided on the part of the state,” she said. “Hungry kids are hungry kids.”

Andrea Egitto, a teacher and chapter coordinator for the Northampton Association of School Employees, said that she is concerned about hourly school employees and students who depend on free and reduced cost lunches.

“Our biggest concerns are to make sure that everybody in our school district is taken care of … We want everybody to stay healthy, and we want people to not have to worry about food and paying their bills.”

Provost said all school employees, including hourly ones, will be reporting to school Monday, and that he’s working with staff to see whether they can continue some form of school lunches.

“A very serious consideration for me is how do we continue to support the families that rely upon the schools to meet their students’ nutritional needs?” he said.

Some school staff members expressed concern about their health at a Northampton School Committee meeting on Thursday evening. Kim Gerould, a teacher at Jackson Street School, read a letter signed by 28 school employees. 

“As school staff members that are in the high-risk group by virtue of age or other underlying medical conditions, we would like to share some concerns,” she said. “Those of us in the high-risk groups are more at risk of becoming seriously ill and are more at risk for fatalities … with the lack of testing available and the long incubation period, it’s highly possible that people with the coronavirus are already in our school communities.”

Gerould said she understands the disruptions will be “horrendous,” but that “we should close our schools if truly the health and safety is the most important thing.”

Many Valley schools said in their announcements that they are working to figure out what learning will look like while students are at home. Some schools have sent home Chromebooks or printed materials with students or have said they will put resources on their websites.

Greta Jochem can be reached a gjochem@gazettenet.com.