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Area parents share concerns about school reopening plans

  • Jordan Martin, 21, Andy Belloli, Natalie Belloli, 16, and Tricia Belloli, of Orange, stand on the football field at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School. Tricia Belloli supports a hybrid model because of the area’s exceptionally low rates of COVID-19 cases. She said the lack of social interaction in a typical academic setting has been affecting students’ mental health. STAFF PHOTO/MARY BYRNE

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

  • Ralph C. Mahar Regional School. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Athol Community Elementary School. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

With some families favoring remote instruction for their children, others favoring a return to in-person education and still others hoping for a hybrid of the two, there seems to be no one-size-fits-all method for returning to school this fall amid the challenges sparked by the pandemic.

Greenfield Recorder reporters asked parents from local school districts about concerns they might have with how their children will be educated during the coming year. Here is a sampling.

Greenfield School Department

Pete Brown, who has two children in the Greenfield public school system, said he doesn’t like his children having to start the school year fully remotely, but he dislikes the other options even more.

“The approach I’m taking is ‘What’s the least bad option?’” Brown said. “Ideally, the kids could be in school — that would be the best for everyone — but a lot of us don’t feel that’s safe or possible right now.”

The Greenfield School Committee decided in early August that all students will start with a remote-plus model in mid-September and as time passes and administrators assess how things are going, school officials and the School Committee will reassess. The remote-plus model, described by Superintendent Jordana Harper, is a mainly remote model, but includes some in-person services, such as teaching students in instructional “pods” while practicing social distancing.

“Some parents are questioning why, with COVID-19 numbers so low in Greenfield, are schools starting with fully remote learning,” Brown said. “I believe if we want the numbers to stay low, remote is the best way to do it.”

Greenfield resident Jaimye Bartak thought the School Committee would choose a hybrid plan because the COVID-19 numbers are so low.

Bartak said second-graders, for instance, will have a difficult time learning remotely just because of their age and attention span.

“Remote just isn’t the way to educate young children,” she said. “Why can’t we look at doing more outdoor learning activities to start?”

Former School Committee member and former City Councilor Tim Farrell said for him, opening schools during a pandemic is no easy decision.

Farrell and Brown are both concerned that roughly 1,700 students will need Chromebooks, internet access and supplies, and not all families will have the means to provide them.

“This isn’t even about my kids,” Farrell noted. “I have a flexible work schedule and my wife is working from home. We’ve got what our children need to start school. Others don’t.”

Farrell, who has a second- and fourth-grader, said at the very least, school officials should be contacting every parent or guardian.

“Families need to feel supported and because many don’t, frustration sets in,” he said.

Frontier Regional/Union 38 school districts

Frontier Regional School parents urged administrators to slow down the school’s September reopening at a School Committee meeting that followed a vote by the two districts to proceed with a hybrid model for the fall.

“My thoughts on this are evolving as I hear from everybody ... but as the child of public school teachers and as an advocate for public schools, my feeling is always trust the teachers, listen to the teachers.,” said Frontier parent Erika Higgins Ross, referring to numerous comments made by teachers in favor of a remote model.

By way of addressing the concerns of teachers, Superintendent Darius Modestow explained later at that meeting he planned to slow down the reopening of school. Rather than starting immediately with a hybrid model, he proposed delaying any in-person instruction by two weeks.

As the mother of a high school student, Higgins Ross has heard from students who say they are scared to return to school.

“They all talk about how the halls of Frontier are not going to be patrollable, that kids are going to pull down their masks and think it’s funny,” she said. “It scares them a lot ... and they’re also telling me they’re scared to not go to school because of social pressure.”

Pioneer Valley Regional School District

Speaking during a Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee meeting last month, parent Brad Curtis said he was unhappy with the decision to start the year with three weeks of remote learning. He noted there are currently no reported COVID-19 cases among the four Pioneer district towns.

“My son’s going to be a senior. I don’t want him to have to miss out on his senior year because everybody’s just afraid,” Curtis said. “But really we have no cases to be afraid of in this area.”

He supports giving families the choice to either attend in-person learning or partake in virtual learning.

“The online learning, let’s just say what it was, it was bad,” Curtis said. “Kids aren’t learning anything. And I have older kids, I have kids in the high school. I’m gonna have an eighth-grader and a senior. I can’t imagine having an elementary school kid and trying to actually get them to learn.”

Deborah Potee, a Pioneer parent and clinical social worker from Northfield, reiterated statements she had previously made in emails to School Committee members. As a member of a teachers’ union herself, Potee said she recognized concerns of health safety for faculty.

“I know there is inherent risk going in,” Potee said. “I also believe that Pioneer has the capacity, unlike other districts, to be able to do a hybrid model of being in school for those students and families that choose to have their students in school.”

Her daughter attended a camp this summer where children spent time outdoors, wearing masks. She said there were no COVID-19 cases reported from the camp, and her daughter flourished because of the interactions with her peers and camp counselors.

“I as a parent am concerned about academics,” Potee said, “but I’m more concerned about students’ mental health and their physical health.”

Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts

Andrea Donlon, a parent of a rising sixth-grader at Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School, said at a recent School Committee meeting it was disappointing to hear in-person instruction could potentially be put off until shortly before Thanksgiving.

“What became obvious to me this past spring is how much motivation (my daughter) gets by being surrounded by people,” said Donlon, who added that her family’s first choice is a hybrid model. “It was so painful to see how this normally cheery kid would be ending class meetings in tears, so frustrated with the technology and the style of the Google class meeting.”

Another parent, Sebastian Birke, echoed many of those concerns. Having just moved to Shelburne Falls, his son attended school remotely in Boston this past spring.

“We had a bunch of experience living in Boston and going through remote schooling. I have to say, they did a really good job … teaching with these recorded sessions, and I can still tell you it was like going to the dentist every day. It was not a peaceful, fun learning environment.”

He said he and his partner work full-time and have a 2-year-old at home as well, making juggling work and their son’s education difficult.

“It sort of breaks my heart to think that we’re going to have to organize that for him at home,” Birke said. “That’s not really school.”

Birke said he trusts the community and the teachers to create a new reality of learning.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say community members are not going to take enough care of each other,” he said. “I have high trust we can make some sort of hybrid model work.”

The School Committee, however, ultimately voted at its Aug. 13 meeting in support of the superintendent’s recommendation to begin the year remotely before transitioning into a hybrid model, tentatively scheduled for the end of November.

Gill-Montague Regional School District

In the Gill-Montague district, parents’ opinions on the remote learning plan have varied widely, with parents expressing uncertainty over the efficacy of remote learning, as well as health concerns about students being in school.

Before finalizing the fully remote learning plan the district will be using for the time being, the School Committee asked parents to submit comments and opinions on the choice between fully remote learning and a hybrid model.

“It’s a lot of both sides,” said committee member Jennifer Lively, who collected the emails and summarized the results in a School Committee meeting. “There’s no good answer. Everybody has different needs.”

Jim Katsoulis, who said he has a third-grade child and one in ninth grade, spoke at that meeting strongly in favor of a hybrid model. Because Franklin County has exceptionally low rates of COVID-19, he said, the risk of sending students to school is probably also very low.

Moreover, he added, remote learning seems to be damaging for students, especially younger ones, as it deprives them of social contact.

“When they don’t see any other kids and any teachers, it’s like they’re in an isolation tank,” he said.

Franklin County Technical School

Franklin Tech is one of very few local schools to have an in-person element this fall. In the school’s hybrid model, two grade levels will be in the school building at a time, with one grade in its vocational shop classes and the other in academic classes. Each two-grade cohort will alternate every other day between in-person and remote classes.

School administrators have also said that, if cases of COVID-19 appear locally, they could scale back to a totally remote model.

“We’re a little nervous and anxious, but excited at the same time,” said Erin Scanlon, whose daughter is a freshman at Franklin Tech. “But they certainly seem to have their stuff together. I feel like they did an excellent job. I don’t think they could have done anything better.”

“I have a feeling that, if anything was to arise, they’re going to shut it down immediately. So I don’t feel like it’s going to be anything too bad,” said Priscilla Bell, whose daughter is a freshman. “I’m hoping, for the sake of these kids, that they can get all their hands-on learning and everything they need, that this will work and be good. But I am still very nervous about it. I’m not so nervous about the staff, but more about the students. Because they’re kids, and who wants to keep a mask on all day?”

Ralph C. Mahar Regional School District

The Mahar School Committee voted to start the school year remotely for at least 30 days. Committee Chair Peter Cross said the situation will be assessed at that point and then every 30 days thereafter. This is a change of course for the committee, which had previously opted for a hybrid reopening model.

Tricia Belloli, the mother of a Mahar junior, said she supports a hybrid model because of the area’s exceptionally low rates of COVID-19 cases. She said the lack of social interaction in a typical academic setting has been affecting students’ mental health.

“A lot of them have been hibernating in their rooms for seven months,” she said. “I think they need this. They need to get out of their houses and be amongst their peers. And if for some reason things start to escalate, we can scale it back.”

School is scheduled to begin on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day.

Belloli said a survey indicated 61 percent of Mahar parents support a hybrid reopening model. She said her daughter, Natalie, has been missing her friends and the Mahar athletics program.

Athol-Royalston Regional School District

With the start of the school year now less than two weeks away, parents of students in the Athol-Royalston district continue to wrestle with decisions they have made regarding the learning model they have chosen for their children. The district has given families the option of either attending school full-time or opting for full-time remote learning.

Jennifer Pierson’s son will be heading back to school at Athol Community Elementary School, where a few weeks ago several food service workers and a member of the faculty tested positive for COVID-19. She said she decided to have her son return to the classroom after speaking with a number of family members.

“I’m not sending my son back to in-person instruction lightly,” Pierson said. “There are going to be some risks. As much as his health is important to me, along with everyone else’s health, my son’s education is also top priority. If he can’t get the teaching he needs to be able to retain what he has learned, then what is the point? Our children are our future; we are depending on them.”

Pierson said her main concern is the possibility that a resurgence of COVID-19 will lead to schools again closing their doors.

“I’m afraid my child would struggle to readjust to full online learning,” she explained. “He doesn’t have any learning or physical disabilities, but he’s easily frustrated sometimes, and he would be trying to look to me for help and answers — and I’m afraid I may not be able to help him. I’m a single parent who doesn’t work at the moment, but may be starting work at some point. How would I juggle work and educating my child from home?”


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