Area officials respond to governor’s order students won’t return to regular classrooms

  • Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan said the district was prepared for the schools staying closed and will focus on adjusting educational standards going into the fall. RECORDER FILE PHOTO




Published: 4/22/2020 4:15:56 PM
Modified: 4/22/2020 4:15:46 PM

To the surprise of few educators, public and private school students will not be returning to their regular classrooms this year.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday at his daily press conference that schools are ordered to remain closed as the state continues to manage the spread of COVID-19. He said the measure does not apply to residential special education schools.

“This is a big decision,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do considering the facts on the ground associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Baker said the order is necessary for keeping students and their families safe, and for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Gill-Montague Regional School District

The extension of the school shutdown won’t immediately affect the Gill-Montague Regional School District’s existing remote learning models, but it has pushed the district to think about the challenges it will face when things return to normal — educationally, socially and financially.

“We have to think about what school might look like in the fall,” said Superintendent Michael Sullivan. “Those are the conversations that we’ll start having now.”

The possibility of extending remote learning through the end of June was already written into the district’s memorandum of understanding with its staff, Sullivan said, so classes will continue as they have been. Teachers have online meetings with their full classes at least once a week, with individual or small group meetings as needed. Expectations on the amount of work students do outside their online classes vary by grade level, from about an hour a day for kindergarten to 3½ hours for high school grades.

What comes after that is yet to be determined. One possibility is that summer school, which normally focuses on special education programs, may be expanded this year into “catch-up” work for the general population, Sullivan said.

It’s also likely that educational goals will have to be reconsidered when things return to normal, Sullivan said. School administrators generally see the state’s guidelines as overly ambitious, he said, and there is typically a gap between the state’s expectations and what teachers are actually able to accomplish.

“That’s going to be much more pronounced this fall,” he said. “So how do we strategically look at our standards, decide what’s critical, and selectively abandon stuff?”

Even more likely, school funding will be affected by the economic downturn, as state and town tax revenues are already expected to be lower than previously estimated. Gill-Montague would have gotten an increase in its state funding next year; now that is uncertain, Sullivan said.

Pioneer Valley Regional School District

Superintendent Jonathan Scagel said district staff and students have been anxious to get back to school in a normal capacity, but he understands the reasoning behind Baker’s decision.

“It’s heartbreaking, but it’s the right call,” Scagel said. “We have to put public health and safety above everything else.”

Scagel said he was one of the first superintendents in the state to inquire about the chance of closing for the rest of the year. Although the district had hoped to return this year, Scagel said officials had planned for the reality of an extended closure. The district established a balanced system for staff and students. So far, Scagel said he has heard nothing but positive feedback regarding the remote learning process.

“Staff are running Google Meet classrooms and keeping connected with their students, while allowing flexibility for family time outside of school hours,” Scagel said.

Greenfield Public Schools

Superintendent Jordana Harper said students will continue to use the district’s Remote Learning Plan for the rest of the year.

“GPS teachers and staff miss our students greatly and remain committed to supporting all of our students and families as best as possible,” she said in a letter posted to the district’s website. “We have worked hard to create curriculum to keep all students learning during school closure, and will continue this until we are able to ‘start strong’ and safely return students to school.”

Harper also advised students and guardians to keep their eyes peeled for updated information regarding what this will mean for important school events, such as graduation.

“We know that for many families, students and staff, this is a very challenging time,” she said.

Frontier Regional School District

Superintendent Darius Modestow said he wasn’t surprised about the decision to keep schools closed for the rest of the year.

“The tea leaves were showing that we were going to close for the remainder of the year,” he said. “It’s good to finally have that decision made so we can plan effectively.”

Modestow said the district is prepared to continue the year with remote learning, and is adjusting to the needs of students and families.

As for the impact remote learning will have on the coming academic year, Modestow said that’s the question on all educators’ minds. He said the district is considering how it can adjust its curriculum so kids have the skills they need to move through the curriculum.

“How do you move from Algebra 1 to Algebra 2, if you don’t have all of Algebra 1?” he said. “That’s a massive effort between the administration and the teachers. That’s the planning that’s going to come in the months ahead.”

Frontier Regional School Principal George Lanides said the decision, though understandable, was heartbreaking.

“It’s hard, knowing that we’re not going to see them physically for the rest of the year,” he said. “For safety’s sake, I hope this works for everybody.”

Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont school districts

When Interim Superintendent Patricia Bell learned schools would be closed for the rest of the year, she wasn’t surprised.

“It’s going to be frustrating for kids and their families,” she said.

Still, Bell said it made the most sense, as there are no alternative ways to bring people back together safely.

The district is continuing with home instruction plans, she said, which includes online learning as well as providing hard copies of materials to families who require it.

The district has also added Wi-Fi hotspots to all of the school building parking lots, she said.

“A lot of families don’t have service in their areas,” Bell said. “It’s a challenge to even come to some of these off-site access sites, but considering the infrastructure does not exist out here, it’s a challenge to reach kids for online instruction.”

As for next fall, Bell said the district has planned for a situation in which students return to the classroom as normal.

“We don’t know yet what the state’s going to require in terms of new instruction this year going forward,” she said. “But regardless, we do have a plan for a transition section of the year that will bring kids some sense of closure … and open the gates for new learning next year.”

Franklin County Technical School

“The finality of it all makes it difficult,” commented Franklin County Technical School Principal Brian Spadafino.

Administrators had already expected the school shutdown to be extended, he said. But now that it’s official, they are navigating the reality that, if their students are able to return to school as normal when the next school year starts in August, they will have been away for almost six months.

“That’s longer than has ever happened in the modern era of education,” Spadafino said. “It’s hard for students, families, staff. This isn’t what any of us signed up for. And it’s not what we want for our kids. But we’re going to do the best we can, and we’ll provide a quality education for them.”

All classes have gone remote, including Franklin Tech’s shop classes. But if school returns to normal in August, Spadafino said, teachers expect to be picking up more or less where they left off in March. Given the difficulty of teaching remotely, teachers have been advised against trying to advance too many new skills, and instead focus on maintaining existing ones.

“It’s not a race here,” Spadafino said. “We’ve got to get through a curriculum. And we’ll get through it. But we’re not going to do it and leave kids behind, or leave them emotionally a wreck.”

Orange Public Schools

According to Superintendent Tari N. Thomas, the three school districts plan to continue their remote/distance learning efforts with some additional “boosts in essential standards that DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) will release later this month.”

In a letter to families Tuesday, Thomas acknowledged she has received many questions about school events, such as prom and graduation, and about whether students will be promoted to the next grade level.

“Unfortunately, there are no circumstances whereby prom can be held,” she wrote. “Mr. (Scott) Hemlin, high school principal, and I have discussed the importance of providing seniors with a graduation celebration in some format. While we do not yet know what it will look like, we are committed to finding a way to recognize all of our seniors.

“We also anticipate students moving on to their next grade level in all of our schools in the fall,” she continued, “unless there have been conversations already underway with families regarding a student’s readiness prior to March. Teachers and administrators will be adjusting the curriculum to best support our learning when we return to in-person instruction this fall.”

Thomas said the final day of school still stands as June 17 for Orange Elementary, and June 18 for Petersham Center and Ralph C. Mahar Regional. She also said meal distribution will continue through the rest of the academic year.

Athol-Royalston Regional School District

“I think it was a good decision on the part of the governor,” said Athol-Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Darcy Fernandes. “I think ultimately the safety of our children has to be our first priority, as well as the safety of the staff and teachers. So, I’m in agreement with the governor. I think at this point there are a lot of things that are still not quite clear about COVID-19, so to keep kids out until they have a better understanding of that I think is a good decision.”

Fernandes said the governor’s decision also has little practical impact on current operations of the district.

“We were up and running with remote learning a week into the first announcement that the governor was going to close schools,” she said.

Educators, Fernandes said, have consistently been in contact with students.

“When we started, it was required of our teachers to call students twice a week,” she said. “For those on an IEP (individualized education program), the special ed teacher also had to call twice a week, so they were getting calls four times a week. Some of our teachers have already started using Google Reach, so we’re in good shape there.”

Fernandes said there are two major goals for the district in the coming weeks. One, she said, is to reinforce the learning students have already received this year. The second is “to really begin assessing who are the kids who may need some more support over the summer and providing that extra support.”

She noted between 75 and 100 students in the district have no internet access at home, “and so we’re in the process of looking for a vendor who can provide us with ‘hot spots.’”


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