Amherst public school officials commit to plan for students to return to school in person

Plan adopted through a unanimous vote

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Daily Collegian

By Olivia LeDuc, , Collegian Correspondent

School leaders for the Amherst Public Schools are committed to having its students return to school following an in-person framework in the coming weeks.

The joint effort between both the Amherst School Committee and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee oversaw the final resolution for the reopening of schools for in-person learning.

The meeting scheduled on March 2 saw a draft motion by Chair of the Amherst School Committee, Allison McDonald, and the Amherst Representative for the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, Heather Hala Lord.

On March 3, through a unanimous vote by both committees, the plan was adopted.

“The Amherst School Committee voted unanimously for the elementary schools and the Regional School Committee voted unanimously for the middle school and high school,” McDonald said.

This plan will include the phase of optional in-person learning and reintegration of students back into classrooms.

The return to school of some students, per the superintendent of the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public School District, Michael Morris, stated that “On April 5, all kindergarten to 2nd-grade students who want to be in-person will be in-person, April 12, all 3rd-6th grade students who want to be in-person will be in-person, and by May 3 all 7th-12th students who want to be in person will be in-person and this will be 5 days a week.”

The plan assures that proper protocols have been established in order to keep students, teachers and other faculty members safe. The implementations of a universal masking policy, six feet of space between desks, increased ventilation within classrooms through installed air-filtration systems and electrostatic cleaners are all procedures that are measured for safety guideline purposes, according to Morris.

Furthermore Morris will collaborate with local public health officials in assessing health conditions with relation to the supervision of the plan and the safety of students.

“I speak routinely with the director of the Amherst Health Department and we talk about current trends in our local area as well as state-wide. We have frequent contact and speak at least weekly about the trends we are seeing,” Morris said.

The decision for the plan came following the state of Massachusetts’ announcement of regulations and timelines for in-person learning structures.

“The state passed regulations that required almost the same thing [as the plan] … we needed to adjust what we were going to do in relation to the school committee based on what the state is requiring us to do,” Morris said.

Other factors contributed to the commitment of having students return to school for full-time in-person learning, one primarily being concern over students’ mental wellbeing and its impacts amidst the pandemic and following a remote-learning model.

“The challenges many students are having is with remote learning. They are struggling to stay engaged, especially the younger elementary students,” McDonald said. “But in all ages, more particularly when you get to middle school and high school, is the social isolation that is definitely impacting mental health.”

Staff at Amherst Public Schools have done “amazing work with remote” according to Morris, but it still proves evident that remote learning is not an effective module for education.

Students are “struggling and we have evidence of that,” Morris explained. The change to in-person learning is “really important in terms of learning and social and emotional wellbeing,” as students have indicated.

Additionally, the adopted plan has raised some reactions and comments from the parents of students attending Amherst Public Schools. As noted by Allison McDonald, there has been both “positive and negative feedback.”

While there are some families who are thrilled with the decision to reopen schools to in-person learning “some cases to the point of tears of joy and relief,” there is also a presence of concerns within families of students who may or may not be returning to school in person.

“There are also a lot of families that are really anxious for their own children who choose to stay in a remote environment [for their own reasons],” McDonald said. “In this pandemic, everyone has different needs and different tolerance for risk and how we manage that risk in our own lives…There are nervousness and anxiety related to that no matter which way the family or student is landing in terms of returning or not returning.”

Kate Bohne, the parent of Wildwood Elementary School children, complimented the plan.

“We feel really excited for our kids to be able to return to school in-person for the end of the school year,” Bohne said. “While their teachers and the administration did so much to make remote learning engaging for kids, mine were definitely missing the social elements of school and the engagement required of in-person learning.”

While there is concern amongst some parents regarding the safety of their children, Bohne said that “Initially, I was worried about risk and exposure but a year into the precautions of the pandemic, my kids are reliable with wearing masks and social distancing, and the school is doing a wonderful job of helping kids follow these safety guidelines and feeling safe.”

Olivia LeDuc can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @leduc_olivia