The campus of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, one of many in Berkshire County trying to keep students and families engaged during the state-mandated schools shutdown. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hills Regional School District

How South County schools are coping during ‘unprecedented times’

South County — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually everyone around the world and in the Berkshires. From closed businesses to unemployment to shortages of goods and services to the health care sector to the delivery of government services, we are all paying the price in some form, whether you have actually contracted the novel coronavirus or not.

Nowhere has life been more profoundly disrupted than in our public schools. In an effort to contain the virus, and per order of the state, most Berkshire County schools closed March 14 for two weeks. Gov. Charlie Baker subsequently ordered them to remain closed until Monday, April 6, and on Thursday ordered them to remain closed until Monday, May 4.

As one might expect, this has thrown the schools into turmoil. With end-of-year exams and graduations approaching, what are schools doing to keep the educational process going at such a crucial time of the year?

The Edge approached three South County school superintendents and asked if they would be willing to answer a few questions about school life during the shutdown. Busy as they were, all three graciously agreed to cooperate as they scrambled to keep critical school district operations going during this historic public health crisis.

All three emphasized to us that the situation is very much in flux and that almost everything is subject to change as events warrant, and as new directives and guidelines are handed down by Gov. Baker or the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The questions are published below, along with their responses in italics.

1. A general question about the educational programming in your district in the absence of on-campus instruction: Are you attempting to work through the curricula of the various classes students are missing via distance learning, or is this simply impractical on the scale that is needed? Are students required to complete coursework during the shutdown?

Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon

Peter Dillon, superintendent of Berkshire Hills Regional School District: We’re shifting from what was an enrichment model to one that is more focused on explicit instruction and learning. It will look different at different grade levels and within subjects.

Beth Regulbuto, superintendent of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District: School districts were advised, consistent with the governor’s order, to consider access to alternative learning opportunities (enrichment opportunities only) during the mandated school closures. The comments from the Commissioner’s Office stated: “For various reasons, we are not equipped to provide ‘equitable’ distance learning experiences for our students. However, all students can benefit from enrichment activities in many forms during the school closure. None of these activities are mandatory, but they are meant to give families options for keeping their children engaged in the learning process.”

SBRSD’s plan did just that. We released a variety of enrichment activities for all students K-12 in several different formats as not all students have online access in the District.

Michael J. Richard, superintendent of the Lee Public Schools: We are working to provide students with opportunities to enrich their learning and to go “deeper” in the things that they have been taught this year. This is not an attempt to teach them “new” material.

2. If not, then what kinds of activities are keeping students busy? It seems from your district’s website that there are links to resources for enrichment activities and ways to support children during this health crisis. Do you have any idea of how many students and families are using these resources?

Dillon: We’re trying to find a real balance here. We want to have activities that keep students engaged but we want to be careful to not add stress to what for many families is a very stressful situation.

Southern Berkshire Regional School District Superintendent Beth Regulbuto. Photo courtesy Southern Berkshire Regional School District

Regulbuto: Faculty and staff are in the process of doing check-ins with all SBRSD families as a way to make sure everyone is safe and healthy, to collect information on the availability of technology and connectivity, to offer support where needed, and just to stay in touch with our school community.

We will use this data for future planning purposes as well as a way to assess how effective the resources we have already sent have been for families. I have heard from many families who have been enjoying these enrichment activities, and also many who are incredibly concerned with the lack of accessibility available to them. This does present a more difficult challenge for us as a school community.

Richard: The [DESE] commissioner has given advice on having students engage in project-based learning, creative independent work, and facilitated remote learning at the direction of teachers and parents/guardians. These are unprecedented times and we are all carefully navigating these waters with our primary focus being on the wellness/well-being of our students, our staff, and the families in our community.

3. Is it mandatory that students check in remotely with someone during the day? Or are the activities optional?

Dillon: It looks like, going forward, we will evaluate work as credit/no credit. We realize some students don’t have access to technology — devices or connectivity. We’re trying to work on resolving that.

Regulbuto: These past few weeks, there has not been a mandatory check in as these activities were meant to be enrichment only and a way to keep learning going during the closure. As we move to our longer range remote learning plan, the hope would be daily contact between students and the faculty and the staff.

Lee Public Schools Superintendent Michael J. Richard, who hosted a cable-access-channel show when he was superintendent in West Springfield. YouTube screengrab courtesy Access West Side

Richard: These decisions have not been made. At this point, I am asking teachers to check in with students to ensure that they are well and trying to stay engaged in learning.

4. Are there mental health considerations that your district is addressing or will have to address at some point in the future? We can only imagine how terrifying this pandemic must be for younger students, or older students who are at-risk.

Dillon: We’ve always prided ourselves on the relationships we create to support students and families. Much of our work the past two weeks has been to check in with students and parents. The feedback on those check-ins have been really positive.

Regulbuto: This is an unprecedented time in the world for all, and our hope is to continue to offer all counseling support and services that we have available for our students, staff and families throughout. We also have tried to provide links and resources to other agencies and programs that are available to assist our school community. We are a family and are trying our best to be there for each other where possible in these extraordinary times.

Richard: As a district, we are sharing resources and best practices with students and families. Our staff have been connecting with families, as appropriate, to monitor their mental health and wellness.

5. In Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont all but acknowledged that it is likely the rest of the school year will be lost. We have not seen any indication from Gov. Baker that this is the case in Massachusetts (though on Thursday he did extend the mandatory school closings until Monday, May 4), but what happens if school does not resume on-campus until September?

Dillon: It’s hard to speculate on when we’ll be back in school. We’re working hard to address several needs — food insecurity, emotional health and well-being, and academic growth. Kids and young people are very resilient. We’ll work hard to continue to set them up for success.

Regulbuto: We are in the process of putting together a remote learning plan that we will put in place for the duration of the closure or until the school year is over, whichever comes first.  

There are many pieces to consider as we develop this plan, but we are working through the process while following the ever-changing guidelines, reviewing the availability of resources, considering the equity and accessibility for all, and working through the legal and financial implications.

I think everybody wants to come together to continue to provide the best educational experience possible for our students and families while keeping everyone safe and at home.

Richard: That’s a great question and one that I do not have an answer to. I will defer to the [DESE] commissioner on these determinations. In the meantime, we will continue with the work that we are doing to make every effort to keep our students’ minds and bodies active!

The entrance to Mount Everett Regional School on the main campus of the Southern Berkshire Regional School District in Sheffield.

6. Will students receive full credit for the entire year or will any of the work have to be made up? We realize it is relatively early in the process so there may not be answers to this question, but parents and students we have heard from are asking.

Dillon: We’re working hard on this. The whole country is going through the same thing. We’ll support students enough so they can progress. We’ll share more details on this soon. Most testing is waived or suspended.

Regulbuto: We understand — we have been asking, too!! I believe we will be moving to a credit/no-credit experience for the remainder of the closure. Students will have the opportunity to make up or complete work that was in progress in an effort to earn credit, and that will be the same moving forward for the rest of the closure.

Richard: Students will receive appropriate credit for the work that they are doing … students in high school should expect to receive credit for their classes if they achieve passing grades. We are expecting to change to a credit/no-credit grading at the MS/HS, and students in the elementary grades should expect to proceed to the next grade unless there are extenuating circumstances that would prohibit it.

Lee Middle and High School

7. Could you describe the food programs you have in place during the shutdown? We understand, for example, that many districts are offering grab-and-go lunches because so many children depend on their schools for daily nutrition. Have these programs proved popular? Can you give us an idea of how many families are availing themselves of these services?

Dillon: For two weeks we provided breakfast and lunch daily. Just Friday, we switched to giving out three large bags of groceries to families who requested them. One bag was non-perishable staples, one was largely vegetables, and one was dairy and meat.  

We’ll keep doing the bags on Fridays. We’ve worked with several community partners on this. Sharon Harrison [business administrator] and Kathy Sullivan [food services director] are leading these successful efforts. We’re serving 140-plus families.

Regulbuto: The Southern Berkshire Regional School District meal program will provide an opportunity for families with school-aged children 18 and younger to obtain breakfast and lunch at no cost while school is closed.

Meals will be available Monday-Friday from 11 a.m to 1p.m. at the Undermountain Elementary School entrance. If you need food, please contact Jeremy Wells, director of food services, at meals@sbrsd.org or (413) 248-0727 to let him know how many meals are needed in order to be adequately prepared to meet the demand.

We are working with other community partners to be able to provide deliveries to those families who cannot get here in that time frame to pick up meals. Please inform the director of your need for delivery when you call or email. For others who wish to help, we will be collecting non-perishable/canned goods and sanitary products at the Undermountain Elementary entrance to make boxes for families to get through the weekends.  

Our first day was 13 families and by the end of the first week, we served over 260! The numbers have been steady and we will continue this program for the duration.

Richard: The town of Lee is working with the schools to provide meals to any resident who is in need. The program is set up for the weekly provision of a breakfast and lunch for five days for residents. The meals are delivered by volunteers and we are serving hundreds of meals daily (i.e. 234 as of today).

8. Without disclosing details, are you aware of any students or family members in your district who have tested positive for COVID-19? If so, how many?

Dillon: No. Not in any specific way. Our assumption is that this will be widespread shortly. We are in regular contact with the health agent and our three towns.

Regulbuto: As far as I have heard, I believe there was one family that had a presumptive positive in the very beginning, but all were safe and already on the mend!

Richard: No, I am not aware of anyone fitting this description.

9. Has your district made any decision about the wages of administrators, faculty and staff during the shutdown? Are they all being paid their full salaries? Have you had to lay off anyone?

Dillon: We’re working with guidance from the state and governor’s office. We’re also negotiating with unions and bargaining groups. Folks are doing a tremendous amount of work, though most of our roles have changed as we do more work remotely. The School Committee has supported everyone getting paid through May 4 while we work on moving forward.

Regulbuto: As of the original shutdown date through April 6, the district was continuing to pay the wages of all in full. We have not done any layoffs to date. I am incredibly proud of SBRSD.

Many have been working tirelessly to manage the barrage of information, sift through endless guidance, the constant change of course, the challenges of resources and services in an effort to selflessly give of themselves seven days a week to ensure that people feel supported, safe, cared for, fed, and engaged in learning. I am truly in awe and grateful.

Richard: We are paying all salaried employees and hourly employees as appropriate. We have not had to lay anyone off.

Meanwhile, here is some additional information posted on the districts’ websites to inform parent and students during the shutdown.

Berkshire Hills
COVID-19 Updates & Resources
Frequently Asked Questions (as of March 27)
News feed

Southern Berkshire
COVID-19 Resources, Information & Announcements
Latest Update From the Superintendent (March 26)

Lee
COVID-19 Resources and Updates
Lee Public Schools Meal Delivery Information
Lee Public Schools Remote Teaching / Learning Resources