Commissioner requests timeline for in-person instruction from Mohawk Trail, Hawlemont and Gill-Montague

  • Mohawk Trail Regional School. Staff File Photo

  • Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 9/23/2020 4:23:10 PM

One week into the school year, state officials are expressing concern for certain districts that have opted for a remote-only education despite the low risk of virus transmission in their communities, including three school systems in Franklin County.

The Gill-Montague Regional School District, Mohawk Trail Regional School District and Hawlemont Regional School District were cited in a letter from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), along with 13 other school districts throughout Massachusetts. The districts are being asked to create a timeline for transitioning to in-person classes. DESE has also noted that it may audit districts’ educational plans.

In the letter, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote that he was “concerned” by the school committees’ decisions for remote learning.

Citing data and guidelines from the state Department of Public Health (DPH), he said the districts named in the letter had sufficiently low risk of virus transmission and that the school committees’ decisions appeared to be inconsistent with this information.

According to Riley, the communities in receipt of the letter have consistently indicated low rates of COVID-19 transmission — well below the 5 percent threshold established by the World Health Organization. He referenced DPH’s color-coded health metric based on the average daily cases per 100,000 residents in the community.

“Since the inception of the weekly DPH color-coded reports,” he wrote, “your community has consistently received a designation of green or gray, which indicates very low COVID-19 transmission in your municipality.”

Riley noted that in light of “the stark discrepancy” between local public health data and the districts’ plans, he is requesting a timeline for providing in-person instruction for the majority of students.

In a joint statement, Martha Thurber, chair of the Mohawk Trail Regional School District School Committee, and Sheryl Stanton, superintendent of Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont school districts, wrote that the top priority has been the health and safety of students and staff.

“The decision for a remote start was not taken lightly, but was made after we heard the clearly expressed concerns from our families and staff,” they wrote. “Each district made their decision based on the context of what was happening in their local communities, and we were no different.”

The Mohawk Trail School Committee voted unanimously in August to start the school year remotely, with tentative plans to transition into a hybrid model in November.

In response to the commissioner’s letter, the district has developed a process for re-assessing its decision based on a weekly review of state, regional and local health metrics by the district’s COVID-19 School Planning Task Force, which is made up of health professionals, school administrators, teachers, parents and staff members.

“We anticipate moving forward with our process while we work to address any concerns the commissioner may have,” the statement reads.

Gill-Montague also had voted in August to start the year with fully remote classes. Superintendent Brian Beck acknowledged at the time that the area does not have high rates of COVID-19, but argued that the schools were not prepared for in-person teaching, considering the extra staff training, equipment purchases and safety audits that would be necessary.

“I’m not making this recommendation exclusively on numbers,” he said at the time. “I’m making this recommendation based on our preparedness.”

Meeting on Tuesday, the School Committee did not directly address the issues raised by the letter.

One major problem still in the way of in-person classes, Beck said, is that the school buildings’ ventilation systems are still being audited. So far, issues have been found in Hillcrest Elementary School and Turners Falls High School , with more information still needed on Sheffield Elementary and Gill Elementary.

An emergency meeting has been planned for Sept. 29, at 6:30 p.m., when more information should be available on the status of the buildings’ ventilation systems, Beck said.

Several teachers spoke unfavorably regarding DESE’s position during Tuesday’s meeting. Karl Dziura, a high school English teacher and president of the Gill-Montague teachers’ union, called DESE’s actions “coercion” and “bullying,” and said he expects the move to be legally challenged.


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