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“Every day we’re making decisions about the day or the next day”: Pittsfield public schools superintendent on Omicron

A long brick building sits beyond a green lawn and trees with a rotunda with a gold spire rising above it
Josh Landes
Pittsfield High School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Last week, COVID-19 related staffing shortages led two public schools in Pittsfield, Massachusetts to close for two days. Between Taconic High School and Reid Middle School, over a thousand students stayed home on Thursday and Friday. Key district employees were benched as the Omicron variant-fueled surge led to skyrocketing case rates and a citywide positive test rate of almost 19%. The closures came during a nationwide debate over the virtues of in-person education while transmission rates break all previous records. Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Joseph Curtis spoke with WAMC about his decision to close, and his approach to keeping students in class during the surge.

CURTIS: What I projected out to families – and it was an important point to them – that there is no threshold or number, if you will, or even percentage per building, which would certainly be different per building. It's really when we see staff absences starting to progress in any one particular location, that's when myself and the principal start having conversations each late afternoon, and then certainly, if necessary, between 4 and 5 a.m. the morning of before opening. And that discussion really is centered around the type of staff that is absent. Are they core classroom teachers, are they paraprofessionals, and such. Not that any position isn't critically important to our operation, which it is, but sometimes, depending on the type of staff or the number of the type of staff, we can fill the gaps, if you will. So, it's really important. I was saying last week that I am maintaining a staff spreadsheet that myself and the only the principals have access to, and they are, when the staff absences reported, whether it's COVID, related or not, they enter that on the spreadsheet, just so I have kind of an instant snapshot at all times of the staffing levels and concerns at each school. So very individual decision and discussion. And then like last week, when we did come to the conclusion, because of the number of staff and it predominantly being core classroom teachers in both locations, then we have to reach out to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and give them an update and specifics related to the school and receive approval for closure.

WAMC: Just today, I was listening to a conversation between state senators and Governor Charlie Baker about schools. And you hear this fascinating back and forth: On one hand, you have the governor saying that the schools are very safe right now during all of this and that it's misinformation to suggest that they aren't, and on the other hand, I've heard from educators and state senators and folks in the region who are saying we have a lot of concerns about the schools being open during the Omicron surge. We're seeing in Oakland and Brooklyn walkouts and demonstrations from students. I know that Mayor Linda Tyer has prioritized keeping the schools open. At this point, can you walk me through where you stand in this conversation?

Well, I think, and my viewpoint has been the same- We went through, I would say, quite a bit of hardship, as you well know, by conducting remote learning and hybrid learning last year. And there's been so much discussion in the media and certainly in every news outlet about the implications of remote learning and hybrid learning, which contained a little bit of both. I think it's essential that we remain open to ensure that in-person learning continues. Saying that, we can't do that at the cost of being able to safely operate our schools. And that's where the decision came last Thursday and Friday for Reid and Taconic. When we're gathering, let's say, large groups of kids in an auditorium due to lack of coverage, that's not a place we want to be for a number of reasons. Obviously, health and safety, having a large group in any one space. And then just supervision. Having a large group of students together with maybe only one or two supervisors is not ideal in any way either. So that's where those decisions have to come into play and they're very individual. Now, saying that, although we are maintaining in-person instruction school, if you will, you know, with a number of absences, even if we're able to maintain supervision, I am highly concerned about the education being delivered, even with our best efforts. And the substitutes we have, and our paraprofessionals who are phenomenal in serving as subs, they are not their normal classroom teacher. And so there's always that concern about the level of education being received whenever there's a substitute, and that's certainly no criticism on the substitute themselves.

As far as support from the state during all of this, I'm interested- What are your thoughts on that? Has Massachusetts done enough to support a school district like Pittsfield through this period? Again, you go to these hearings on Beacon Hill, you're hearing that for some communities that there are complaints about a lack of PPE, a lack of a statewide plan. At this point, do you think Massachusetts is doing enough to support the Pittsfield school system through this remarkably challenging period?

You know, we have had a number of federal and state funding sources. We've also had an abundance of KN95 masks just provided to us, our test kits for our staff. Sometimes the timing is not in the best of interest in working with other people's schedules. Saying that I understand everyone, certainly in our school system, and I would assume in the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, are doing as best as they can, making decisions in the moment, much like I have to locally. And so as far as resources and connections to DESE, I feel very strongly that we have been provided with the resources that we need to operate safely. We have a contact too through DESE, it's our health and safety contact. I mean, she is available to us at six o'clock in the morning. We have contacted her at 10 o'clock at night, weekends, holidays, and always get immediate response and guidance from her. And if she doesn't know the answer, then she speaks to someone quickly and gets back to us. So, again, some of the timing has been a little off, I would argue. You know, release of updated guidance or the sending of test kits. But, you know, overall, I do feel supported.

At this point, how day-to-day is planning out for the district? I mean, given that you have precious little control over what's going on outside of the district or outside of the school buildings, sort of, at what point every day are you sort of making decisions about what the right choice is for the next X amount of time for the district?

Oh, it's- Every single day, we are making decisions. I mean, right now as we are in the conditions we are, every day, we're making decisions about the day or the next day. And as you know, right now, the greatest concern is monitoring those staffing levels in our buildings. And so there's certainly decisions that a superintendent makes each and every day. And then there are these, on top of those, just related to basic operation. And that's happening every day and throughout each day.

So at this point, given the wild numbers we're seeing right now, do you feel confident telling parents in Pittsfield, your kids are going to be okay coming to school during this in the Pittsfield public schools?

I feel very confident if their child is doing their absolute best to follow the health and safety practices and protocols we've put in place within our schools. We have typically very, I will say, I'll use the word compliant students in elementary school, and we have some students in our secondary schools that that need very frequent reminders. And so, you know, we certainly do that, we do follow our code of conduct when it relates to those, I’ll call it violations of not wearing a mask. But if you have a child that wears their mask, observes distancing, sanitizes their hands frequently – all supplies we have available if students do not – I feel confident that they will maintain their safety within our schools. And then of course, you know, we've been working since the pandemic began on our HVAC systems, we have put in air purifiers in every classroom, we do keep our window or two cracked to increase air circulation, we do measure our CO2 levels in all of our rooms along with our heat. So, you know, the practices that we started so long ago have still been put in place. But, you know, not to say that reminders are not needed, frequently, for everyone to ensure that those practices are being followed.

How sustainable is all of this? Because from a layman's perspective, someone who's not in charge of the largest school district in Berkshire County, it sounds like a pretty wild amount of math to do on a day to day basis to keep this system moving, especially amidst the weather and heading into more uncertainty ahead. So yeah, how fragile is this?

Well, you know, I do believe, and I'm always concerned about the fragility of the system and the system overall, even, you know, with all that we're facing- We had two closures last week. We had to do two delays on Friday and Monday. You know, I'm concerned about that, because we all know that consistency is best for our students and our staff and we try our best to be very consistent each day. And that's always the goal. But there are certainly circumstances, just as we've seen recently, where we have not been able to be and deliver that consistent set of services and education and food distribution and stuff. So, you know, I consider that certainly a concern of mine. It's something I think about day and night, and with great hope that we will reach a level in the near future that we can be overly consistent with our staff and students. And that's always the aspiration and goals.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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