|Mount Greylock School Committee Votes Down Remote Learning Start to School Year|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires.com Sports|
11:05PM / Thursday, August 13, 2020
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two months of input and advice from Mount Greylock’s working groups looking at the reopening of school were undone in four hours of discussion by the School Committee on Thursday night.
On a 6-1 vote, the committee directed interim superintendent Robert Putnam to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education a radically different plan for the start of the year that moves more children into the school building more quickly than the administration was recommending.
Subject to approval by DESE and, not insignificantly, collective bargaining with the district’s unions, there will be no two-week period of fully remote learning as Putnam was proposing.
Putnam went into Thursday’s meeting with plans based on input from groups established in the spring and summer by him and his predecessor with the goal of getting the School Committee's blessing for the plan he has to submit to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Friday.
Putnam laid out a plan largely like the one he presented in a virtual town hall on Tuesday evening
and told the School Committee he was looking for guidance.
He got it.
The meeting opened with public comments from 19 individuals or groups, mostly emails read aloud by members of the School Committee. For the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all seven members of the panel were together for an in-person meeting in the Mount Greylock meeting room, though the public was excluded from attending in person.
The overwhelming majority of the comments were critical of the return-to-school plan Putnam had pitched just two days before.
And it was not long into his Power Point presentation that followed that Putnam was peppered by similar criticism from members of the committee.
“By not doing the most we can to get our kids into school and educated, it’s going to cost us … just not financially,” Regina DiLego said.
Steven Miller immediately concurred.
“I agree strongly with Regina,” Miller said. “One possibility is, can we have classrooms take staggered breaks so they're not sitting in the room all the time. … This is a creative community where we can come up with answers. Can we eat lunch outside the classroom, especially in September on good days.
“There are a lot of families which were really hurt with how things happened [when schools closed in March], and whose family situation is not going to work with two days a week or not going to work with half days. There are a lot of families that need full day. I think at a bare minimum, we should be looking at how to get K through 4, if not K through 6, back to full days Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. And see, from that, what do we need to make it happen. What resources do you need? What are the obstacles that are preventing us from doing this?”
Eventually, Miller made a motion that Putnam submit plans to DESE that call for the district’s K-6 pupils to be in school all day, four days per week and for the students at Mount Greylock to be in school two days a week with half in the building on Mondays and Thursdays and the other half on Tuesdays and Fridays — all starting on Sept. 16, the first day of the school year. And at the middle/high school, the School Committee voted, “the plan will be to go to full four-day instruction for any student who wants it … starting Oct. 1.”
That was the plan the School Committee endorsed, 6-1.
Putnam had been proposing a two-week period of remote learning starting Sept. 16 followed two days a week of in-person instruction for all students in the district starting as soon as Oct. 1: an AM/PM split for the elementary school pupils, who would be in school for half days, four days per week and a “AARBB” rotation for two cohorts at Mount Greylock, where students would be in school either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday with Wednesday reserved to clean the classrooms between cohorts.
Greene said she was hesitant to rewrite the plan in the committee meeting.
“I think I would lean toward supporting what the administration was recommending for the most part because it’s a more graduated approach,” Greene said. “I understand the advantage of taking advantage of the good weather.
“There’s a lot of sense to starting — as much as people don’t like it — potentially starting remote, then going hybrid, then potentially going to [full] in-person. It gives people the opportunity to establish systems, to get used to the norms and to really establish some good pedagogy … and then to be able to scale back because we’ll have all the different stages of remote, hybrid, in-person, back into hybrid and then maybe back into full remote. We need to be able to move in between these as much as we can. And jumping right into full in-person, I think we’re going to lose …”
“It’s not jumping, we do have those two weeks,” Miller interjected. “And we need to have all the time ...
“I understand your arguments,” Greene said, siezeing back the floor. “I just don’t support it. That’s all.”
As he did on Tuesday, Putnam emphasized that all plans for a return to school are subject to revisions to the collective bargaining agreements with the district’s unions.
“The plans I submit tomorrow are tentative and aspirational,” Putnam said, referring to the negotiations he plans to resume tomorrow.
Miller twice during the meeting suggested that those negotiations should be carried out in open meetings.
“We’re in the part of the state where we should be doing in-person or hybrid unless there is a compelling reason,” he said during the meeting’s fourth hour. “I haven’t heard a compelling reason tonight why we are not doing this. The only reason I’ve heard is that we might not be able to get an agreement.
“If that’s the case, let’s have a public meeting with everybody invited and have everyone say: What do you need? And if we need to hire more people, that’s something concrete, and if we need to hire the people, we can go forward. And if we can’t hire the people, we can’t.”
iBerkshires.com late Thursday night reached out to an officer in the teachers union about whether it might be willing to negotiate with the district in an open meeting. As of time of publication, there was no response.
Miller meanwhile, twice appeared to disregard a statement from the teachers union, the Mount Greylock Educators Association, during the meeting’s public comment period.
“I can’t believe we would actually turn children away who want to return to school,” he said at one point. “This is what the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is telling us to do, this is what the pediatricians are telling us to do, this is what DESE is telling us to do. We are in the part of the state where we are supposed to be starting with kids coming to school. We have heard the voices loud. Every comment tonight was about bringing the kids back.”
Leaving aside for a moment that most of the commenters were reacting to what district families could reasonably assume would be “the plan” after Tuesday’s virtual town hall and those who supported the plan were less motivated to submit comments, Miller’s “every comment” remark left out the lengthy contribution from MGEA.
“The decision to begin remotely is safe, wise, practical and reasonable,” the union’s letter read in part. “As school districts are currently unable to provide any sort of COVID testing and local communities are uncertain of the effects of incoming college students and community transmission from continued summer activity, we must take the cautious route. Who among us is prepared to let Mount Greylock Regional School District be the test case, however low we might perceive the risk to be?”
Most of the input shared by the community at the meeting’s start emphasized the low risk and the miniscule current rate of COVID-19 throughout Berkshire County.
Most of the letters — and, later, several School Committee members — also stressed the potential impact on families forced to choose between jobs and staying home to support children studying remotely and the already observed impacts of social isolation on school-aged children.
"Some are expressing that their child is better off in the safety and comfort of their own home during the pandemic," wrote Williamstown pediatrician Dr. Childsy Art, whose letter was read by her husband, School Committee member Jamie Art. “Certainly, those families should have that option. I see and talk with families every day for whom that is not the case.
“Their children struggle greatly with online learning, or the parents had to make excruciating choices about going to work versus supervising their children. Many children were simply not supervised or stimulated. Some were abused. And some teenagers became extremely depressed, at least in part due to the isolation from their peers.”
In other business on Thursday night, the School Committee agreed with Putnam on an extension to his interim superintendent contract through Nov. 10. Chair Christina Conry announced that the district has reached an agreement with incoming superintendent Jason McCandless to begin work in the district on Nov. 5.