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Mount Greylock Committee Member Pushes to Reopen Schools
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:00AM / Wednesday, August 05, 2020
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Steven Miller participates in a recent meeting of the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee via Zoom.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The chair of the Mount Greylock School Committee's Education Subcommittee on Tuesday repeatedly pressed the district's interim superintendent to develop benchmarks that could be met in order to allow a return to full in-person instruction.
 
For now, school officials are planning to begin school in mid-September in a hybrid model that sees half the students in preK through ninth grade attending classes in person two days a week with the rest of their time on learning spent remotely; sophomores through seniors in high school would attend school one day a week under the current plan.
 
Several times during a more than two-hour virtual meeting, Steven Miller reiterated his contention that the Lanesborough-Williamstown district is uniquely situated to move to full, in-person instruction.
 
"We are in a wonderful situation where we are in a rural setting with people who are responsible, who are socially distancing and wearing masks," said Miller, who also referred to the county's low incidence of COVID-19 positive tests.
 
Miller said districts in other parts of the country envy the position in which the Mount Greylock district finds itself, and the local schools should take advantage of the opportunity to open the doors to all students as soon as possible.
 
He cited testimony from his subcommittee received from a local doctor who stressed the social and emotional needs of students that are not being met in a remote learning environment.
 
Several residents who participated in the meeting reinforced that concern, either in their oral testimony to the subcommittee or in the chat section of the Zoom video conference.
 
"We are major advocates of in-person, obviously," said John Skavlem, a former member of the defunct Williamstown Elementary School Committee who joined the meeting alongside his wife. "We have two kids in 10 through 12 and are very concerned with … all the other risk factors that are far more significant to those children if they are not back, in person, especially given the amount of time they've been away from school already and their peer groups and teachers and coaches and those people who serve as mentors.
 
"Adolescence is hard enough without having all of these ramifications of the pandemic on top of it. As … others in the community have expressed their concern about the amount of mental and social consequences — mental health, depression, things like suicidality — I didn't know that was a word until [recently] — that they're hearing in our community is really, really concerning. That's before I go into things like kids with idle time and drug and alcohol abuse at that age.
 
"These are really significant consequences. Those are lifetime consequences."
 
Others who participated in the meeting noted that there are other consequences to consider, like a disease that has killed 158,000 Americans since March.
 
"I think we need to acknowledge there are children and adults at high risk and are being medically advised not to go back to school as it is the perfect environment for spread of this virus," Amy Perry Mercier noted in the meeting's chat window.
 
Ralph Hammann agreed.
 
"Absolute safety is something to be aimed for," he wrote. "Your goals must be high so that when you fall short, you will fall less far. One death or severely compromised health [sic] is unacceptable."
 
Later, Hammann pointed out that while Berkshire County currently is in a good position with respect to COVID-19 diagnoses, that could change "with the influx of tourists." Williamstown Elementary School teacher Maureen Andersen pointed out that Williams College and Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts both will see the return of students at the end of the month.
 
Interim Superintendent Robert Putnam — who mentioned during the meeting that he did not know when recently hired Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless will be joining the district — promised Miller to develop a plan to present to the full School Committee that includes benchmarks for the return of full in-person instruction.
 
"We're supposed to receive guidance [from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education] about the levels of infection as they regard both opening and closing," Putnam said. "But another thing I'd want to work [with the Mount Greylock teachers union] about is the idea of benchmarks for opening full and in person. The concept is: What would need to be in place for us to convert from a hybrid model to fully in person. That is something that's going to have to be a discussion.
 
"To look for benchmarks is an important thing we need to do."
 
Another concern raised at several points in Tuesday's meeting was the need to address the air quality in the schools.
 
"I have questions regarding the [heating, ventilation and air conditioning] system at Williamstown Elementary and the air flow," Andersen said. "It has been a continual problem for years at WES, and it does worry me greatly about going back if that hasn't been remedied."
 
Putnam said he has heard concerns about the older heating and ventilation systems at the district's two elementary schools and needs to have "an absolutely clear report" that they are adequate to support the health of students and staff who will occupy the buildings.
 
Miller said the administration should come to the School Committee with any fiscal needs it has to support reopening — whether they be HVAC upgrades or additional staff. He also encouraged Putnam to think outside the schools' literal "boxes" and explore alternative spaces, including tents and, in the case of Mount Greylock, potential surplus space at Sweet Brook Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
 
In general, Miller stressed that the goal is to get as many kids back in school as soon as possible.
 
"We are at the point where we are having very few infections found daily in Berkshire County," Miller said. "We are in a rural area. This is the time to act on something like this, to get our kids back to school. I would like to see every kid back at least two days a week. For the elementary schools, I would like to see them back five days a week as soon as we can.
 
"Unfortunately, as with life, there are risks and there are things we can do to minimize the risks. This is where we have to have some very challenging conversations about: What are we going to do about all the different issues.
 
"We can go for maximum safety, and maximum safety is everyone living their life on their couch. We can go for going back to school like it was before — no masks, no social distancing. I don't think either of those extremes is going to serve our community well. The question is to try to find a balance that will meet the educational, social and emotional needs of our children and will provide reasonable levels of safety to everyone in our community. These are going to be challenging decisions to make."
 
The next meeting of the full School Committee is Thursday at 4 p.m. Anyone wishing to make a comment to the committee is asked to email Chair Christina Conry at cconry@mgrhs.org.
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