Frontier, Union 38 plan remote-only week after Thanksgiving

Staff Writer
Published: 11/20/2020 3:18:06 PM

SOUTH DEERFIELD — Local boards of health have voted to make the week after Thanksgiving remote-only for students at Frontier Regional and the local elementary schools.

“We really want to keep our schools open long past Thanksgiving,” Deerfield Selectboard member Trevor McDaniel explained at a Selectboard meeting Wednesday night. “We’re very concerned about the level of infection right now.”

Students will receive remote-only instruction from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4.

“We created a model that allows us to go remote,” said Superintendent Darius Modestow at the start of a joint Board of Health Tuesday night that included public health officials, School Committee members and school administrators. “That was the whole idea — so that when we have an outbreak, or we see community spread, and I think we are seeing community spread, the question is, ‘Do we pull back a little bit, and let it calm down?’”

Several members — though concerned with the apparent spread in their communities — acknowledged the overall safety of schools, noting that the transmission they have seen thus far has happened outside the school community.

“Sunderland is an amazingly prepared and safe school,” said Sunderland Board of Health Chair Caitlyn Rock. “It is designed to be that way. In the research I have done, the kids in that school — they don’t change classes, they’re in their pods, they’re distancing, they’re wearing their masks. … When you look at the studies … (schools are) not where the transmission happens.”

Transmission happens at home, at home gatherings, she said. And although she believes the majority of the four communities will take seriously the state and local advisories against gatherings, she didn’t see the harm in a week of remote-only education following the holiday.

The conversation and subsequent vote by health officials on Tuesday took place, in part, in acknowledgment of the upcoming transition into four days of in-person instruction at Deerfield Elementary School.

“Each school is different, because each school has different demands,” said Modestow. “The idea was to come up with a phase three that wouldn’t start until after Thanksgiving. Some of the schools aren’t thinking about starting that until January.”

McDaniel, who also sits on the Deerfield Board of Health, said he doesn’t want to “jeopardize” future weeks of in-person education by assuming the communities won’t see an uptick in COVID cases after the Thanksgiving holiday, particularly with the return of college students.

“After every holiday,” he said, “there seems to be a little bit of a bump up … and I think it’s safe to do remote for the four days and assess and come back.”

Francis Fortino, chair of the Whately Board of Health — who supported the preemptive decision for a week of remote learning — expressed concern for waiting until after Thanksgiving for the boards to assess the situation, as another local board of health member had suggested.

“I don’t know how the rest of the schools are, but Whately Elementary is in tough shape, with 12 close contacts and several teachers among those,” he said. “We don’t know whether that school will be able to staff up in the next week. I don’t think waiting until after Thanksgiving is going to help at school at all.”

Speaking against the proposal, Conway School Committee member Phil Kantor asked public health officials to consider students on IEPs, as well as other more vulnerable students in the district.

“Nobody’s talking about the cost to kids,” he said. “… Missing just one day of live instruction … is bad for kids. By saying you’re going remote, you’re also condemning that portion of the population who has IEPs for daily services for their children, which is a significant portion of our population.”

Although Rock agreed that missing in-person instruction is a detriment to students, she emphasized the reality of living through a public health emergency.

“That is what a pandemic does,” she said. “That’s kind of what we’re faced with when we make these huge decisions.”

Deerfield Board of Health member Carolyn Shores Ness noted that not creating a post-Thanksgiving “buffer” week could allow for the potential of a case count that warrants remote-only education of longer than one week.

“I wanted to safeguard the month of December,” she said. ” … I was afraid we would end up not having any school before Christmas.”

Although the public health officials present ultimately supported the decision as a group, and voted as such, the Conway Board of Health lacked a quorum to hold an individual vote.

Van Ness suggested a follow-up meeting before the Christmas holidays, to re-evaluate the situation.

“I’m in contact with the (board of health) chairs,” Modestow said. “And if the chairs feel the numbers are concerning and they want to get back together … we’ll look at those numbers and … if there is … concern, the chairs can call another meeting and take further action.”

Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.


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