Athol teachers union seeks reconsideration of school reopening plans

  • Athol Community Elementary School

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 8/12/2020 10:55:30 AM
Modified: 8/12/2020 10:55:23 AM

ATHOL — “We want to get back to work in the safest way we can. And right now, the safest way is to begin instruction remotely.”

That was how Athol Teachers Association President Mary Grutchfield concluded an interview with the Athol Daily News this week.

Grutchfield was reacting to last week’s decision by the Athol Royalston Regional School District School Committee to back a dual strategy for reopening district schools. The plan, put forward by Supt. Darcy Fernandes and approved on an 8-2 vote by the committee, lets parents choose between sending their children to school full time or opting to have them taught remotely.

Grutchfield said that following Wednesday’s vote she was “extremely disappointed and concerned for the safety of the ARRSD community.”

“We’re hoping to start from the safest point and use health and safety data in the community, surrounding communities and the state to drive movement to other models,” she said. “So, we’d like to start remotely. We don’t want to stay remote if we don’t have to. We understand the importance of students being back in school for their social/emotional health, and that it’s the best way to receive instruction.

“But what Supt. Fernandes’ plan is proposing is, if you are a family that wants to receive remote instruction, so be it. If you are family who wants your child to receive in-class instruction, so be it. If you change your mind, let us know within a week and we can switch to the other plan. And there is no protocol for evaluating health and safety. There’s nothing in their proposal for that.”

While some districts are allowing parents to change their minds on their child’s instruction options at the end of a quarter or trimester, Gruchfied said it’s her understanding that parents in the Athol Royalston district will be able to make the change at any time, as long as they provide a week’s notice.

“Supt. Fernandes should say, OK, you need to pick a plan; you want to pick either all in, or you want to pick remote, and you’ve got to stick with it.’ Because it’s not safe to keep bringing people in and out. I mean, it’s not safe anyway.”

“It makes it more difficult to track what’s going on in terms of health and safety,” added ATA Vice President Tracy Johnson. “The fact is, with kids moving in and out — if that should happen — the six-foot social distancing cannot be ensured in the classroom.”

Johnson said the ATA would also prefer to see the district abide by Centers for Disease Control guidelines, which call for six-foot distancing, rather than three-foot distancing, which has been approved by the state Dept. of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Grutchfield also said that opening remotely would give the district more time to familiarize families and educators with a formal, refined remote learning model. That, she explained, would better prepare the district for a decision from the state to again close all schools in the event of a spike in COVID-19 cases across the commonwealth.

The association’s proposal, she said, is to utilize remote learning for a period of 45 days to start the school year.

“The we re-evaluate,” she said, “and if the local data and the state data indicate that the numbers (of COVID-19 cases) are down, we would then progress to a hybrid model. We would then, after a period of time, re-evaluate that and either move forward, stay where we are or go back.

“We’re hoping for a more fluid approach to the school year that focuses on the data in order for movement, with the full intention always being to eventually going to full in if the health data warrants that.”

Johnson said the union has been given no information regarding how bad the situation might have to be before schools are again shut down.

“There hasn’t been any indication on what it would look like if schools had to close down again. However, the district does have a proposed remote learning model online, which they’ve posted, which — in our proposal that we’ve given to the district — we’ve offered to follow. But they’ve rejected that because they do not want to start with remote learning.”

The ATA and the district are currently negotiating a memorandum of understanding, which would spell out the rights and responsibilities of both educators and administrators moving forward, as the district continues to adapt to the changing conditions of the pandemic.

Grutchfield said the union plans to ask the committee at its next meeting, which is set for Aug. 19 at 6:30 p.m., to reconsider its vote to support Fernandes’ reopening plan and vote for instead to opt for remote learning to begin the school year. Meeting Zoom link at

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