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Pittsfield Schools Transition to Hybrid Learning with Caution
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
03:45PM / Monday, March 01, 2021
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Pittsfield students are returning to their physical classrooms for a full week for the first time since November.
Interim Superintendent Joseph Curtis on outlined the ways that the school community will be protected from COVID-19 to the School Committee on Wednesday.
"Amazingly enough, we're 17 days away from, I'll use the term 'anniversary' although I don't think it's anything to celebrate, from that March 13, 2020, when we had a series of very intense days with [former] Superintendent [Jason] McCandless and representatives, and certainly our mayor, and we made the decision ahead of our governor to close our schools," he told the committee.
"At that time we were giving an estimate of roughly two weeks for closure just to assess where we were and where we needed to go, and as you know, the better part of one year now, we have remained in remote learning."
With this "anniversary," he said the city needs to reflect and pause because it can bring some emotion to everything residents have endured and adjusted to, especially in the schools.
"Every person in our school system has adjusted their roles and what they do," Curtis said. "Our students certainly have, our families."
Since Feb. 21, the city is at a 1 percent positivity rate and has 7.7 cases per 100,000.
Curtis compared that health data to data from Oct. 26, the day before the remainder of all students began in-person learning and right before the surge of cases following Halloween weekend. In October, there was a 0.7 positivity rate and 2.5 cases per 100,000, which Curtis said is comparable to current data.
The schools did not initially revert to remote learning because of positivity rates or transmission within schools in November, he explained, but because there were technical issues with the local provider that affected their ability to contact trace to their standards.
To prepare students and families for the return, widespread communication started on Feb. 12 before winter break.
The week started with staff returning to their respective buildings for professional learning and preparedness with at least 2 1/2 to three hours left over to prepare their classrooms.
From Tuesday to Wednesday, the staff utilized presentations to review health and safety protocols with all students. The materials were also provided to families in English and Spanish.
Before returning to school, students were asked to complete a self-certification for safety protocols.
On Thursday, all elementary school students returned in the morning/afternoon model and the first group of secondary school students began following the second group on Friday.
Curtis noted that the Pittsfield Public Virtual Academy is currently taking enrollments and those students will not be returning to in-person hybrid learning. Currently, there have been 5,013 Chromebooks deployed to students for remote learning and 750 Verizon hotspots, and another 850 T Mobile 20GB per month hotspots have been secured for the next school year.
All staff members are being provided with KN95 masks for the return to school and students are being asked to consider double masking with a disposable and cloth mask combination for the best protection.
The schools' learning areas are being outfitted with 750 air purifiers with H13 HEPA filters that complement the HVAC system and the opening of windows. Through negotiation with the United Educators of Pittsfield, the district will take regular carbon dioxide readings in all spaces of the schools. Any room in use will have to have a CO2 reading below 951 parts per million.
Before a space is used, a reading will be taken and then continually repeated during use. The district also requires one to two windows to be open 3 or 4 inches in any space and is reportedly ensuring that heating systems work properly to accommodate the incoming air.
Curtis said the School Committee directly indicates that in-person hybrid learning will proceed until it is determined by himself in consultation with public health officials that instances of school transmission warrant a reversion to full-time remote learning.
If school transmission does occur, a decision based on the circumstances will be made. Possible outcomes could include a classroom, a number of classrooms, a grade level, or a school being reverted.
The district has met with delegates from state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Shah Foundation to get approved for state pool testing, as is being done in North Adams and Williamstown. On Feb. 19, the district was paired with CIC Health School Surveillance Testing Program out of Cambridge and hopes to be supported by County Ambulance as the subcontractor to CIC.
In this case, testing would take place in Grades 2 through 12 at least once a week. A plan is being developed to test pre-K, kindergarten, and first-graders who cannot administer the test themselves.
"We continue to be strong advocates to create a special vaccination event for teachers when our phase begins so we can hopefully provide a special vaccination event lets say on two Fridays so our staff members can have the entire day to be vaccinated and then have the weekend to recover," Curtis said.
Because some show symptoms of illness after a second vaccination, the district is encouraging the local Board of Health and other officials to create the two special vaccination events on Fridays so teachers can have the weekend to recuperate.
Curtis said he was somewhat surprised that staff appeared to not have readily accessible information about vaccination and it became apparent through discussions with the teachers union that the district needed to compile all of that information into one place.
He hopes this will alleviate some of the stress that staff and faculty are experiencing in the return to in-person learning.
"I think the fact that you are bringing [vaccinations] to the educators to make it as easy as possible is a very positive and welcoming choice," committee member Alison McGee said. "I think that's something that I'm hoping is alleviating some of the concerns."
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