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New Pittsfield School Committee Meets for the First Time
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
08:48AM / Thursday, January 13, 2022
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The new School Committee met for the first time on Wednesday with two fresh faces.

In line with tradition, the committee appointed its organizational positions for the term. In unanimous votes, William Cameron was elected as the chair, Daniel Elias as vice chair, and Mark Brazeau as the clerk.

"I would like to thank the School Committee for selecting me to chair this body," Cameron said.  "Election for the position of chairperson is an honor."

New members Sarah Hathaway and Vicky Smith were welcomed to the committee. Hathaway, a former Pittsfield mayor, thanked the district's staff members, students, and families for their resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I just want to take a minute to express gratitude to our teachers, staff, building administrators who are carrying so much weight on their shoulders right now, we know you're coping as best you can, we're really, really great grateful for the work you're doing," she said.

"Also, gratitude to students and parents who are coping as well."

The committee went through six agenda items in about 90 minutes before going into the executive session.

The fiscal year 2023 budget calendar was approved with April 27 set as the budget adoption day.

There will be separate meetings for the discussion of education spending outside of the committee budget and state aid, enrollment, and grants. There will be a daytime budget workshop on March 28 and a public hearing on March 30.

"We really see that budget workshop as an opportunity to work in smaller groups, then to process the sections and pieces of the budget, with certainly some outcomes that we project," Superintendent Joseph Curtis said.

"But really giving time, like we try to do it in our classrooms as well, for you to work with colleagues, rather than hearing the presented, but trying to process the different sections of the budget."

Assistant Superintendent Kristen Behnke explained that these two meetings were added based on feedback from previous budget seasons. Committee members had expressed that they were looking for more time to discuss the budget and recognized that meetings were sometimes going late into the night.

The budget workshop's daytime scheduling posed a possible problem for a couple of committee members, especially those who work in the schools. The schedule was approved with the understanding that it will have to be revisited if it becomes unworkable.

During his routine report, Curtis touched on a couple of recent hot topics during his report to the committee, one being school closures.

"I just did want to discuss briefly for the public and certainly the committee, just the process, it's always a topic of inquiry in media, families, how a snow cancellation or delay is called," he explained.

Curtis said he and the district's bus operations director begin driving the city's streets around 4 or 4:30 a.m. to get a survey of how the conditions are on possible snow days.

Communications then begin between those two and the highway division superintendent.  

A decision has to be made by 5:45 a.m. and if there is a delay or closure, a post to the Pittsfield Public School's social media accounts, a notification on the district website, emails sent out to all staff and families, and lastly a notification sent out to local television and radio media sources.

Last week, Taconic High School and Reid Middle School experienced closures due to staffing levels for the first time. Curtis said he keeps being asked what number of absent staff members triggers a closure.

"The very frequent question is, 'what was the number, that signaled to you it was kind of close?' And I carefully explained that there is no number, it's a very careful analysis of the staff that are out," he explained.

Curtis and district principals maintain a live staffing spreadsheet that is checked throughout the day.  When staffing levels seem concerning, Curtis starts a dialogue with the school's principal and then has a virtual conference around 5 p.m. and then at about 4:30 the next morning.

Ultimately, when the building cannot be safely supervised, they contact the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to get approval for the closure and then immediately notify students and families.

There are currently 69 active student and staff COVID-19 cases in the district. Curtis said that contract tracing protocols will remain the same but reported struggles with reaching family members to alert them of an exposure.

He pointed out that the state of New York and other schools in Massachusetts have stopped contact tracing.

"The debate of discussion, even with our county superintendents is is that sustainable? And right now, they're saying they're beginning to say 'no,' that local school contact tracing is not sustainable,"  Curtis later explained.

"And so do we move to model -- and I'm not suggesting that this evening -- but the discussion is do we move to a model where the contact tracing doesn't exist, either? And if you're symptomatic, obviously the normal protocols would occur with pool testing and the test and stay program that we have in place, so that that's being discussed as we speak."

Mayor Linda Tyer emphasized the need for contact tracing in the schools even if every parent or caregiver can't be reached.

"We're fortunate and Pittsfield that we have committed public health nurses who are determined to continue to contact tracing even though they're struggling to connect with people and to encourage people to isolate or quarantine follow the recommendations," she said.

"I realize it's a logistical challenge and I understand why it might be more than the schools can handle, I just think it's important that we do our best to maintain contact tracing, even if we don't succeed 100 percent, if we get 7 percent people traced, we're still making an impact."

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