Athol Teachers Union rips state over school closure denial

  • Athol Community Elementary School. file photo

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 4/15/2021 1:18:12 PM
Modified: 4/15/2021 1:18:08 PM

ATHOL — The Athol Teachers Union this week accused the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) of practicing a policy of “do as we say, not as we do” for refusing to allow a one-week closure of Athol Community Elementary School over COVID-19 concerns.

Union president Kerry Conway was informed that DESE twice this week denied Athol Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Darcy Fernandes’ request to close Athol Community Elementary School, even though four classrooms were forced to go entirely remote due to several positive cases of COVID-19 among students.

“We started with a positive case in the building on Easter Sunday,” Conway explained, “and our first room shut down that Monday. And then later that week we ended up with more positive cases in the building, in the kindergarten, we had another positive case, and they shut down that room. And then this Monday we ended up with more positive cases, so they shut down two more rooms.”

The cases in question, according to Conway, are a result of both community spread and school spread.

“We were all on the same page,” she said. “The superintendent asked DESE twice, and they said ‘no,’ it’s not enough cases. We have, I think, somewhere around 10 (cases). It’s climbing.

“DESE’s solution was, ‘Well, we’ll send out the rapid response unit,’ and they’re just going to test the kids who are in the two kindergarten rooms. They’re not testing anybody else in the building. They’re only going to test those two groups of kids and they’re going to test, obviously, only with parents’ permission.”

A release from the union noted that closure of ACES this week “could have created a natural two-week quarantine period to break the transmission cycle, since all schools are closed next week for April vacation.”

Conway characterized DESE’s decision as “shameful,” given that the department itself is still operating solely remotely.

Conway noted that the district is one of the few in the state that has been open to all students since schools reopened in the fall, though parents have the option to keep their children at home.

“It’s frustrating that we’ve been in-person since the get-go,” she said. “We’ve been in the building since Aug. 25. We’ve been all-in this whole time. And the one time everyone is on the same page and in agreement that this is the right thing to do, to create a natural quarantine by going remote this week, with school vacation next week, we find ourselves in a situation where DESE overrides the superintendent and says ‘no.’”

The ATA last year opposed the decision by Fernandes to open schools, rather than opting for remote education, due to fears over the potential spread of the virus.

“The anxiety level, the concern for the safety of the kids — it’s just an embarrassment of DESE to be so — they’re just overstepping at this point,” Conway said.

“Education is all about putting people in place who are experts at what they do. And if the superintendent has toed the line and said ‘no, no, no’ this whole time, and now she’s saying ‘yes,’ there’s probably a reason.

“There’s a reason we’re in a different place right now, and she felt that (closure) was appropriate. And they said ‘no.’”

The union statement noted “that although many school staff have had one vaccine dose, very few are fully vaccinated — that is, two weeks past having a second shot. Therefore, they are also at risk of catching COVID or bringing it home to unvaccinated household members.”

The first positive student case at ACES this month, according to the union, was identified on April 4, the next on April 7 and the remaining two on April 12. Two were in kindergarten classrooms in what may well have been an in-school transmission, one in first grade and one in second grade.

Conway called the deployment of the rapid response team “too little too late.

“DESE needs to honor the needs of the community when it comes to health and safety decisions that impact the health of staff, students and families alike,” she concluded. “We need to break the cycle and make good decisions.”

Greg Vine can be reached at

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