Only small minority of Amherst-Pelham teachers ready to return to classrooms

Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2021

AMHERST — A handful of classrooms at Crocker Farm and Wildwood elementary schools will be able to have in-person education beginning in March, Superintendent Michael Morris announced Tuesday night.

But with fewer than one in five teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff who are part of the Amherst Pelham Education Association saying they would voluntarily return to school buildings for in-person instruction next month, remote learning will remain the only option for Fort River and Pelham elementary schools, Amherst Regional Middle and High schools and Summit Academy.

With surveys of 428 union members complete, out of 577 members in the union’s three bargaining units, Morris determined a plan for having a limited number of students back in classrooms. Outreach to families will begin this week, though Morris acknowledged an equity issue will exist since not all children can be invited back.

“All of this is imperfect, but I didn’t want to have perfect be the enemy of progress,” Morris said.

The school committees for the region, Amherst and Pelham schools gave him instructions in January to develop a proposal for in-person learning in which teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff could, on their own, decide to be back in schools. Such a plan is also to be guided by advice from local health professionals consulted by Morris.

Specifics of the plan are still in progress. Morris said at Crocker Farm the preschool program and four primary classroom grades will be in person beginning March 1, then an intermediate classroom will join them March 15. At Wildwood, five classrooms spread from kindergarten through sixth grade will be in person by mid-March.

The survey results from 428 respondents, showing just 91 would come back voluntarily, were accompanied by comments from teachers and staff members who opted not to volunteer to return in person.

At last week’s School Committee meeting, Morris said these comments included the need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, safety concerns for themselves and their families, remaining home due to family responsibilities, such as children doing remote learning from home, worries that the educational programs would be compromised if some students are taught from school and others from home, and concerns about whether returning would be a decision against the union.

“I think this was a really, really difficult decision for people,” Morris said.

Since schools went to remote instruction in March, only the youngest children and high-needs students have been back in school buildings at all. A memorandum of agreement on in-person learning between the school district and the union set a threshold of 28 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents on a 7-day rolling average. That has been exceeded continually since late October.

In a statement issued by email Monday, the union for teachers and staff wrote that it supports educators having the option to work under a voluntary program, so long as the union is directly involved in the planning of the programming, and that terms of the arrangement will be covered by a side letter negotiated with the School Committee. That side letter, to be voted on this week, reads, “Staff may choose to work in-person or work remotely without pressure of consequences associated with their choice.”

The union also noted it has been in touch with Morris on the rollout of the program.

“We hope to continue regular communication with the School Committee as we discuss with our membership more opportunities for safe in-person schooling,” the union wrote.

The most favorable responses to the survey came at Crocker Farm, where 29 of the 77 staff members, or almost 38% of those responding, would return voluntarily, including nine classroom and special education teachers. But in notes attached to the survey, many of those in favor say they work at the preschool housed there.

At Fort River Elementary School, just nine of 73 educators would return voluntarily, and of these only three classroom and special education teachers.

Wildwood Elementary School saw a bit more favorability toward a return, with 16 of 76 saying they would come back voluntarily, including eight classroom and special education teachers.

At Pelham Elementary School, seven of 23 would come back, four of them teachers and three support staff members.

The Amherst Regional Middle School surveys showed 13 of 67 educators, and just five classroom teachers, special education and English Language Learners instructors willing to return; while at the high school, 16 of 109 educators would voluntarily return, with just five of these being core teachers and ELL and special education instructors.

Finally, at Summit Academy, one of three staff members is willing to come back voluntarily.