PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee has voted to go forward with a hybrid education model with the possibility of a fully remote beginning to the school year.
During the second half Thursday's meeting, the committee directed the administration to go forward with a morning/afternoon hybrid education model with the option to begin the school year remote.
"Today we are attempting to thread a needle of being respectful of the negotiation we are doing with our teachers and be respectful of the community that has weighed in in large numbers to say that they want to see some sort of version of in-person school," Superintendent Jason McCandless said.
The details surrounding this direction — such as when school will begin, if it will begin fully remotely, and when the hybrid model will begin — are still up for negotiation with the teachers union and will be present in a memorandum of understanding.
The administration recommended a hybrid model. Specifically, one that split the student body into two shifts allowing for proper social distancing. One cohort would physically attend school in the morning while the other would come in during the afternoon. Remote experiences would take place while these cohorts are at home.
The United Educators of Pittsfield posted a statement through social media stating that they wish to resume education in the fall remotely. The teachers' union felt a remote learning period would allow time to fully develop a hybrid learning plan that would work for both students and staff.
McCandless said although interpretation of the current data indicates that it is safe to begin a hybrid model, there is no wish to "forge ahead" without considering the union's wishes and developing a plan that may not be negotiable.
He said the administration wants some target to move towards at the negotiation table and do not want an open-ended fully remote introduction to the school year.
McCandless said a school start date should be solidified at the very least, possibly Sept. 15, when some of the student body will return. The majority of students may start remotely during this time but they would like to nail down an "aspirational" starting date, possibly in October, when the hybrid model fully kicks in.
Also to be negotiated are the health metrics that would allow this date to go forward. McCandless this will certainly be guided by state recommendations.
He said this is just as important for families who need to begin planning ahead for the school year.
Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis could not delve too far into the negotiation process but did say different starting dates have been discussed. He said the UEP has a different date in mind than the administration.
Some of the main discussion points currently are more based on protocols and procedures that would need to be in place upon returning to school, he said.
"Physical requirements to be met in the hybrid model ... one could argue right now that the data is suitable for in-person but it is more about the other details," he said. "Like testing protocols, a written plan that would state the threshold of cases that would warrant closure. All of that documentation ... air quality measurements — that is really what has been put on the table a list of requests or demands."
There was a fear that the teachers and the district would not be able to come to an agreement and committee member William Cameron said if this was the case it would be devastating.
"If we came to an impasse we would have a hot mess because we would have no agreement on the terms that school would resume," he said. "We would have no way of understanding what was supposed to happen next but we don't see an impasse in the making here because we seem to be making progress and an impasse would be a terrible situation."
The School Committee also voted to establish a virtual academy for students and teachers who may want to opt-out of the hybrid model
Curtis said preference will be given to vulnerable students and teachers but the program will be open to all.
The conversation moved to some of the costs of not having in-person school. This included educational challenges as well as food security, safety monitoring, and other intangibles lost when students aren't in school
"At what point are we low enough where it is the responsible decision to go back to in-person school and on the other end at one point is the infection rate high enough that for the good of the entire community ... we need to close school and move to fully remote," McCandless said.
Chairman of the Board of Health Alan Kulberg was in attendance and did field some questions from the committee. It was his opinion that it was safe to return to school and, at some point, they have to "jump in the pool and see how the water is," he said.
"I am in favor of the hybrid model ... and I don't think there is any clear advantage to beginning in a fully virtual model. I think it just extends our quarantine," he said. "Sooner or later we've got to see what happens when we put students in school."
He said the risk for children is relatively small and the greater the concern is infecting adults who are often at a greater risk. He said teachers should be afforded stronger protective masks because of this and efforts should be focused on protecting them.
Kulberg said this poses a concern for students interacting with their families and noted that it really comes down to staying vigilant with social distancing and other safety protocols in and outside of school.
Sadly, he said, this means students probably should remain distanced from their grandparents.
Kulberg said there is a strong infrastructure in place to deal with testing and tracing
Mayor Linda Tyer said she supported the hybrid model only because Pittsfield has done so well during the pandemic and still has low infection numbers.
"If not for this very low rate of infection I would not be advocating for any kind of hybrid in school scenario," she said.
The city has had 205 confirmed cases since March and six deaths.
Kulberg also went over some metrics that would cause the district to pull the plug on in school learning. He said these numbers are really tied to cases in the city and as long as the positivity rate is well below 5 percent, school should be allowed to stay open.
Although the state's guidance will be the overarching barometer, if this number creeps up to around 9 percent, closures and restrictions across the board need to be considered.