Gill-Montague plans for hybrid classes by month’s end

  • Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 9/30/2020 10:08:22 PM

MONTAGUE — A timetable for the Gill-Montague Regional School District to transition to a hybrid class model has been set, with school staff and certain high-priority students expected to transition Oct. 20.

By the end of October, the full student population could potentially transition to a hybrid class model that would include at least some amount of in-person instruction.

The remote learning model implemented since the start of the school year has mostly been received well, judging by feedback from parents, according to Superintendent Brian Beck. Efforts have been made to improve the level of rigor compared to the impromptu remote classes that were held in the spring, and parents seem to recognize that, he said — although some have also expressed dissatisfaction with certain aspects,.

“We’re hearing that, and we definitely will evolve,” he said.

Previously, the district had left open the possibility of transitioning sometime this fall, but had not committed to any sort of timetable. Beck had explained that the school buildings were not yet outfitted for the new safety standards, and that staff members were not yet prepared for the new safety protocols.

Now, most of the issues either have been resolved or are expected to be in the foreseeable future, making it possible to plan on gradually transitioning out of the fully remote model, Beck said.

Beyond that, a plan for fully in-person classes with no remote element has not been discussed publicly. Beck has mentioned that, under the current standards for social distancing, none of the district’s buildings could accommodate their full student populations.

A prompting last week from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey Riley may have influenced Beck’s recommendation and the School Committee’s vote on Tuesday to accept it — but the letter from DESE was not directly referenced in the discussion.

Riley, citing data on rates of COVID-19 cases and transmission, argued that Gill-Montague’s plan for remote instruction was inconsistent with this region’s low virus rates. The same letter was sent to 15 other school systems throughout Massachusetts, including Mohawk Trail Regional School District and Hawlemont Regional School District.

In the letter, Riley requested a response with a plan and timetable for the district to switch to a model that would incorporate at least some in-person instruction. It was noted that the district’s plans could be audited.

Several teachers participated in the School Committee’s virtual meeting last week, after the letter had been received, opposing switching to in-person instruction. Karl Dziura, president of the Gill-Montague teachers union, urged the School Committee not to vote hastily under perceived pressure from the state, adding that he had reason to believe that DESE’s action would be legally challenged and might be halted.

The original plan this year — to start in a fully remote model and continually re-evaluate — had been recommended by Beck. He explained at the time that the recommendation was not based on the local COVID-19 rates, but on the schools’ preparedness for adopting new safety standards.

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

Among other things, he had pointed to a need to hire extra staff, train new and old staff in new safety protocols, audit the school buildings for compliance with new health standards, and purchase items such as personal protective equipment, transparent barriers and air purifiers.

A major issue, then and now still, is a comprehensive audit of the schools’ ventilation systems, which in some cases require maintenance or repairs. The work is still ongoing, Beck said, but is expected to be largely complete within two weeks. He said reports on the findings of the audit are expected to be made publicly available when complete.

The plan for hybrid classes, which the School Committee voted to accept Tuesday, ultimately is contingent on progress in the ongoing work on the ventilation systems, Beck said. While it seems likely that the buildings will be ready for at least small groups of high-priority students by Oct. 20, he said, progress toward transitioning the full student population to hybrid classes may happen more or less gradually depending on the maintenance work.

“It’s all really going to be dictated by maintenance,” he said.

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