Pioneer school district charts return to hybrid model

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School Principal Kevin Burke leads a group of students to their next class in September. The district is returning to a hybrid learning model, with special populations of students returning to some in-person instruction on Thursday, and the remaining students who have not opted to be fully remote returning on Monday, Jan. 25. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2021 3:09:39 PM

NORTHFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Regional School District is returning to a hybrid learning model, with special populations of students returning to some in-person instruction on Thursday, and the remaining students who have not opted to be fully remote returning on Monday, Jan. 25.

The decision comes after a 10-2 vote of the School Committee to follow a reopening plan that was previously voted down by the district’s two unions, which expressed concerns for the safety of staff and faculty. However, Superintendent Jonathan Scagel, as well as district Nurse Carla Simpson and Dr. Ruth Potee, spoke to the safety of returning to in-person education.

“The current numbers in our district towns do not support our schools operating in a fully remote model,” Scagel said.

According to Scagel, the district is continuously watching case numbers in local towns and communicating with boards of health and other public health officials. He said the information gathered from these resources creates a “real-time” picture of viral activity in the area.

Potee said “the data remains clear it is safe for our kids to be in classrooms, and it is safe for our teachers to be in classrooms.” Particularly, she said, “when we put this many protections in place.”

“When you look at today’s maps, this week’s maps for our region, our numbers are incredibly low,” Potee said. “The peak of this disease locally was about the mid-point of December. The numbers are descending and they continue to descend. This is good news — I wish they were as good and as low in the rest of the country.”

According to Simpson, as of Jan. 14, the COVID-19 positivity rate in Franklin County was 3.47 percent. Each of the four towns in the Pioneer Valley Regional School District report fewer than five cases, with Leyden reporting zero cases.

Simpson echoed Potee in saying that local COVID-19 case numbers should be used in making decisions on reopening or closing schools.

“Back when this original plan was written, over the summer, it followed CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and talked about state numbers,” she recounted. “Those numbers have changed. All the big scientific organizations — CDC, World Health Organization — they all talk about the importance of looking at local numbers.”

Speaking to why the Pioneer Valley Regional Education Association (PVREA) and Pioneer Valley Association of Support Professionals (PVASP) unions had voted down the school district’s updated health metric plan, which is based on local COVID-19 case numbers as opposed to statewide statistics, PVREA Co-Presidents Renee Keir and Claire Brennan expressed concern for the health safety of faculty and staff. They said teachers may qualify as having pre-existing conditions, or may live with a family member who does. Keir referenced a union survey at the start of the school year that saw 47 out of 103 respondents say they qualify as having a pre-existing condition or health concerns, based on CDC guides.

Potee noted that K-12 teachers are in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine during Phase 2 of the distribution plan next month. She also said she is working with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to plan the rollout of vaccines to teachers. Keir said the distribution of the vaccine, even if not all faculty choose to accept it, could provide an added level of comfort for returning to school.

“We are so close to something that will change the trajectory, just a little bit, and make people’s comfort level grow,” Keir said. “We’re so close — it’s darkest before dawn. We feel like we’re right around the corner..”

Some School Committee members, and Potee, raised concerns about a lack of social and emotional connection among young students. Potee said “we will see health consequences for years to come for our children” because of the social and emotional impacts the pandemic has had. She said she is supportive of a hybrid model to start, but once teachers and staff begin to be vaccinated, she would encourage more in-person learning.

After roughly an hour of discussion, School Committee members voted 10 to 2, with members David Young and Robin Neipp casting the dissenting votes, to start a return to a hybrid learning model.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at or 413-930-4579.

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