- The Decision to Resume Instruction.
The Lenox Public Schools will resume in-person hybrid instruction in all grades effective Tuesday, January 19, 2021. The schedules and cohorts in place when schools closed for in-person instruction on November 30, 2020, will resume on that date.
This coincides with the period during which the School Committee voted on November 9 to close the Lenox Public Schools’ facilities and revert to fully remote learning. The Committee voted to take this step as a result of public health officials’ having widely predicted a marked increase in cases of COVID-19 as a result of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holiday season.
I told the School Committee at its meeting on January 4 that, barring an unforeseen event or set of circumstances that would necessitate keeping our students remote past the January 19 restart of in-person instruction, school facilities would reopen and hybrid instruction would resume on January 19. No such unforeseen event has occurred, and no such set of circumstances has arisen.
The question of whether to resume school as planned or to continue to keep almost all students in fulltime remote instruction has been discussed in depth with an ad hoc committee of medical and public health specialists. Twice in the last two weeks School Committee chairperson Robert Vaughan and I met with the aforesaid advisory committee. That group is composed of:
- four physicians, two with special expertise in infectious diseases (Paula Aucoin, MD, Noel Blagg, MD), one a pulmonologist (Daniel Doyle, MD), and one a family medicine practitioner (Lisa Nelson, MD);
- a Community Health Programs nurse practitioner with expertise in family medicine (Molly Rivest, Ph.D.);
- the Director of the Tritown Health Dept. (James Wilusz, RS);
- the Lenox Public Schools’ school nurses (Jennifer Drees, RN, and Kathlenn Shove, RN); and
- the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission’s Public Health Programs Manager (Laura Kitross, MPH).
Assessing all the factors involved as we consider the resumption of hybrid model in-person instruction, the ad hoc medical advisory committee supports resuming in-person instruction on January 19. Specifically, the advisory committee has concluded that the resumption of in person instruction on January 19 is safe for students and staff, and the minimal risks involved in resuming in-person instruction are substantially outweighed by the emotional and academic risks of prolonged remote-only learning.
- The Factors to Consider
As of January 19 Lenox students will have been either on vacation or in a remote instructional setting – in other words, not engaged in in-person instruction — for 49 consecutive days. (Some students, as a result of parental choice, have received their education in a wholly remote instructional setting for longer than that.) As noted above this lengthy hiatus has been precautionary. My recommendation that this be done, and the School Committee’s vote that resulted in its happening, was rooted exclusively in a concern for the physical wellbeing of students, staff, and their families. The current unprecedented upsurge nationally in infections and deaths suggests that the warnings from public health specialists about avoiding close contact over the holidays with those not members of one’s household were not alarmist.
That said, there have always been other factors to consider. For some time it has been widely reported by local pediatricians and family medical practitioners, state and national pediatric medical groups, the Mass. Dept. of Public Health, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF, among others, that the social, emotional, intellectual, and physical wellbeing of many students, from our youngest school-age children to those in their last years of high school, are jeopardized by prolonged reliance on wholly remote instruction. These observations arose from the steps taken nationally as well as in Massachusetts last spring, when schools were closed from March through June: social isolation, depression, cutting, suicidal ideation, physical inactivity, and sheer boredom with daily on-line instruction for five or more hours, characterize an alarming number of students’ experiences in schools when wholly remote learning is the case for an extended period. We do our students, their families, and the communities in which they live no service by ignoring these factors or treating them as matters of minimal concern.
Moreover, despite the best efforts of teachers and counselors to maintain regular contact with students and to keep them advancing at a satisfactory pace through the curriculum as they learn remotely, there can be no serious argument made that for the great majority of students, their academic progress cannot be assured by continued long-term reliance on remote instruction, as was the case last spring. In addition to threats to students’ emotional, social, and developmental welfare noted above, too many students struggle to keep up academically and remain motivated to succeed throughout prolonged experiences with solely remote instruction.
- Weighing the Risks of Reopening vs. Staying Closed
The resumption of hybrid learning is not without risks. Nothing in life is without risks, and engagement in activities with persons not of one’s own household can easily be seen as entailing increased risk of infection. The essential question is whether the risks of infection by staff and students with SARS-CoV-2, and the risk of developing COVID-19, outweigh the risks of keeping our students out of school completely. What we do know are the following:
- high infection rates in Lenox in early December were found to be primarily microclusters in Lenox nursing home population, without significant spread to larger community;
- despite some public schools in Berkshire County having been open during part or all of the time that the Lenox Public Schools have been closed, there have been no documented in-school transmissions of the novel coronavirus in those schools;
- improved testing times now averaging 26 hours (down from 4-5 days or longer), which will significantly improve contact tracing and timely quarantining/isolation when needed, as well as three free, “stop the spread” testing sites operated under state auspices in northern, central, and southern Berkshire County, where testing on request is available to all Berkshire County residents;
- the Lenox Public Schools operational protocols for ensuring minimal risk of infection – 6’ distancing in school at all times; masking throughout the in-school portion of the instructional day, including during transportation to and from school, with, on recent medical advice, exceptions henceforth to be allowed only for outdoor mask breaks; temperature taking for anyone, be it a student, a staff member, or a visitor, entering Morris or LMMHS; frequent hand washing and sanitizing; the abbreviated hybrid day resulting in the avoidance of unmasking for large numbers of students to consume food while in school – are the most rigorous in Berkshire County; and
- the appearance in the United States of a so-called “UK strain” of the novel coronavirus, one that is apparently more readily transmitted than the original strain, is a reason for even greater emphasis on the steps to ensure that our schools do not become places where the virus is spread; but there is no evidence that stringent adherence to the multiple steps mentioned above in preventing school-based transmission of the virus are less effective with this new strain than with the original strain (which is still with us).
- Looking Ahead
The Lenox School Committee and the LPS’s leadership team will continue to work closely with the Lenox Education Association, the Lenox Board of Health, the Tritown Health Department, and the ad hoc medical group described in no. 1, above, to take all necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of students and those who work with them in our schools. As we resume in-person instruction on January 19, parents and guardians who, for a variety of reasons, remain apprehensive about their child’s attendance in school even under the hybrid model may continue to have their children learn remotely. Information on the circumstances of students remaining in remote learning or opting to join remote learning when in-person instruction resumes will be provided by your child’s school principal.
I will continue to provide the Lenox Public Schools community with updates and additional information so that parents and guardians can make well-informed decisions about their children’s education. The members of the ad hoc medical advisory group have agreed to continue to meet as a group to provide the School Committee and me with guidance on aspects of the medical situation with COVID-19 as matters continue to unfold. Its members will create regular updates for the larger community regarding current infection rate, vaccine availability, safety protocols and more.
Lenox Public Schools