The playground at the northern end of the Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School, where two students in the summer program tested positive for COVID-19. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Amid COVID uncertainty, in-person learning likely this fall for Berkshire Hills

"I think the school year is going to be more normal, but it's too early to comment on masks," said BHRSD Superintendent PeterDillon said.

STOCKBRIDGE — A pair of students enrolled in the summer program at Muddy Brook Elementary School tested positive for COVID-19 last week, but Berkshire Hills Regional School District Superintendent Peter Dillon is confident that school will reopen, as planned, for in-person learning in late August.

The positive test results set in motion the process of contact tracing and quarantining for the COVID-positive students and those with whom they came in contact.

“As a result of that, there are about 30 students at the elementary school whose summer programming is going to be cut short because they’ll have to quarantine,” Dillon told the school committee last night. “More than ever, I’d like to encourage people who are eligible to get vaccinated. We are starting to see additional positive COVID cases in the schools and in the community.”

See video below of last night’s Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee meeting at the district office in Stockbridge:

Dillon said the most frequently asked question he hears from students, parents and district employees is whether masks will be required when school reopens. He doesn’t have a definitive answer yet but guidelines from the U.S. Center For Diseases Control (CDC) recommends indoor masking in public indoor settings in “areas of substantial or high transmission.”

Substantial transmission is defined as communities with 50 or more positive cases per 100,000 people. As of July 27, the CDC says Berkshire County’s seven-day moving average was 28.1 per thousand, putting the county squarely in the moderate range.

BHRSD Superintendent Peter Dillon. Photo: David Scribner

Dillon said Gov. Charlie Baker and Jeffrey C. Riley, commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, have been “pretty adamant” this summer that the upcoming school year would be a normal one.

“I think the school year is going to be more normal but it’s too early to comment on masks and in a couple of weeks when the trajectory becomes clearer, I’ll share an update on it,” Dillon said.

Recent surges of the so-called Delta Variant are troubling. One such outbreak this month of nearly 900 cases in Provincetown, on outermost Cape Cod, caused the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Health there to reinstate a mask requirement.

Children 12 and older are eligible for vaccinations. Dillon said the district would await CDC guidance on pediatric vaccinations, but he is not convinced those guidelines will be issued until January.

As for what exactly the fall reopening will look like, Dillon said it is unclear but he is in “constant conversation” with the Board of Health in Great Barrington, by far the largest town of the district’s three member towns.

Corey Sprague. Photo via Facebook

School Committee member Corey Sprague of Stockbridge said it appeared that the district might have waited too long to decide on a course of action for the fall of 2020 after going all-remote that spring.

“Knowing what we know now, is there any kind of planning and communication that could happen now so that we’re not playing catch-up?” Sprague asked.

Last summer, the decision on whether to reopen fully was complicated by the objections of the Berkshire Hills Education Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers.

“I’m very confident we’re going to have school in-person unless there is a fifth variant that has yet to come out,” Dillon replied. “I think the big debate is going to be around masks or not and, if so, in what grades and for whom.”

Sean Stephen, also of Stockbridge, wanted to know whether the district was going to rely on the state for guidance again this year.

“I think that was one of the problems last year,” Stephen said. “Every time we came up with a plan, that plan got blown up by the state.”

The campus of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Great Barrington. Photo courtesy Berkshire Hills Regional School District

Dillon, who grew up in New York, characterized Massachusetts as “the land of local autonomy and control.” He acknowledged that, in hindsight, the district “might have been a little more submissive” to state directives than necessary.

“I think we can put a stake in the ground this time around,” Dillon said. “As a group, we should weigh the state guidance, CDC guidance, and make a decision that works best for Berkshire Hills.”

“I think we know more than we did a year ago,” added School Committee Chairman Steve Bannon of Great Barrington. “I think we are a little wiser and I think we can navigate this a little better.”

School faculty and staff report for professional development on August 25. District schools are scheduled to open for all students on August 30.