Pioneer to start with 3 weeks’ remote learning, then reassess

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School District students will start the year with three-weeks of remote learning, before entering into the district’s recommended plan for a phased reopening process. Staff File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/5/2020 4:03:56 PM

NORTHFIELD — Pioneer Valley Regional School District students will start the year with three weeks of remote learning, before entering into the district’s recommended plan for a phased reopening process.

Some School Committee members were absent from the committee’s special meeting Tuesday night, but those present voted 7 to 3 in favor of this plan following a two-hour discussion.

Committee members voted to begin the school year Sept. 16 with remote learning, extending the original recommendation of two weeks created by Superintendent Jonathan Scagel, District Nurse Carla Simpson, Dr. Ruth Potee and district reopening committees. After the three-week remote start, Scagel said, the district will reassess the health data before implementing their recommended phased reopening plan.

“The district has worked diligently to gather as much information and feedback as possible in order to develop plans and protocols that will keep students and staff safe, while creating a nurturing and productive learning environment,” Scagel said Tuesday night.

The 66-page reopening draft plan can be found on the Pioneer Valley Regional School District website homepage. Scagel said the reopening plan calls for schools to bring students back to in-person learning by cohorts and by grade level. The modified schedule would have half-days for the first three days after students and staff return to school buildings so they can acclimate to the new routines and safety precautions. After these first days, schools would phase into full days, continuing to use a cohort model to gradually increase time in school.

Potee said students in second grade and above would be required to wear masks, and all would have to practice social distancing. She said families would be responsible for monitoring their child’s health for any COVID-19 symptoms; fever, loss of smell or taste, shortness of breath. She said, unfortunately, the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to many other things and parents must be cautious and not send kids to school if they are sick for any reason. Potee said constant monitoring of health safety and cleaning practices at home and in the classroom would be a key component to avoid any potential spread of disease.

“If we all washed our hands just five times a day we would reduce viral spread by 40 percent,” Potee said.

All four district towns have approved providing portions of CARES Act funding to purchase cleaning equipment and remote learning tools for the 2020-2021 school year. Schools would be required to install air purifiers and plexiglass barriers and rearrange class and lunch schedules to accommodate social distancing requirements. Schools have also made arrangements to teach outside under rented tents when the district returns to in-person education or a hybrid model. According to Potee, open-air settings have proven effective in limiting the spread of the disease.

“There is a clear consensus from both educators and medical groups that we are in a fluid situation, which may change in a moment’s notice,” Scagel said.

Potee said that “at this point” the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was relying on “local districts to make their local decisions based on local numbers.”

According to Simpson, all four towns in the Pioneer Valley Regional School district are listing zero positive case counts.

At the start of the meeting, Claire Brennan and Renee Keir, president and co-president of the Pioneer Valley Regional Education Association, respectively, shared the results of a survey sent to school staff last week and collected Monday. The results of the survey showed that out of 101 responses, roughly 61 percent of school staff did not feel comfortable returning to in-person learning to start the year. According to Brennan, 43.6 percent of respondents said they would prefer to begin with remote learning and reassess the situation throughout the year. The second most favored option was a hybrid plan, which drew 24.8 percent support.

Although the School Committee ultimately voted in favor of starting the year with remote learning, Northfield Elementary School Principal Megan Desmarais expressed concern that teachers would not be able to establish strong relationships with new students if they did not get to start the year in person. Retaining student attention through remote teaching could prove difficult without established relationships.

While the school may phase into in-person learning models, district families and students are still able to choose remote learning if they do not feel comfortable returning, or are unable to for personal health reasons. They will have the options of in-person learning in the school building five days a week with modifications, or remote learning at home, a combination of streamed online classes and assignments. Students may transition between options during the school year. Returning to in-person learning would require a five-day transition period so that schools can plan and make the necessary adjustments.

In addition to selecting a path for reopening, the school district was required to approve and submit three learning scenario plans — one for in-person learning, one for hybrid learning and one for fully remote learning — to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education by Aug. 10. This was required so districts would be prepared to return to in-person schooling safely, or if they had to change plans quickly due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The three recommended plans were approved unanimously by the present School Committee members.

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

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