by Sarah Marshall
With distance learning disallowed for the 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school students will attend school in person. However, students will find that all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer to allow improvements to HVAC systems and at least six feet of distance between students and teachers, feel crowded. How can this be, when enrollments are dropping?
At Wildwood and Fort River schools, the infamous quads, with their incomplete walls, poor ventilation, and spaces with no windows, were transformed into two classrooms each, with floor-to-ceiling walls, amped-up ventilation, windows, and desks widely separated. This reconfiguration cut the number of classrooms in half. During the spring, some students attended class remotely, meaning that the schools hosted less than 100 percent of the student body.
Next year, as 100 percent of students return, spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms, and many support services will operate out of the libraries. There will be no dedicated art and music classrooms, and instructors will take their carts from room to room, with obvious limitations to their curricula. Students will eat lunch in their classrooms. At Fort River, the successful and growing bilingual program, Caminantes, also affects space allocations, as each grade level offering Caminantes needs three classrooms, two for Caminantes and one for the standard program. Crocker Farm was not built with quads, but space was also reallocated to improve ventilation and spacing within all teaching areas. The unique space pressure at Crocker Farm comes from the growing preschool program, which enrolls all of the district’s special-needs 3-to-4-year-olds.
What can be done to get all elementary students back in true classrooms, restore the art and music rooms, and leave cafeterias for diners? Some options have been mentioned at School Committee meetings and others can be imagined, but the feasibility, timeline, and cost of each option must be determined. However, it is probably not possible to solve the problem for the 2021-2022 school year.
For the 2022-2023 school year, we can: (1) Do nothing, and live with the current space plans. (2) Buy or rent modular classrooms for some of the elementary schools. (3) Rip out all of the changes made to the buildings last summer and let the schools revert to their prior states. The changes made to prepare for teaching during the pandemic did not cost Amherst taxpayers a dime, since federal and state relief funds paid for the construction. However, reversal of these changes would be paid for entirely by Amherst. (4) Make the Middle School a 6-8-grade school, a common grade configuration in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S. The Middle School currently hosts about 425 students, but as recently as 2000 hosted about 725 students. The Middle School can easily absorb all of Amherst’s 6th-graders and ease space demands at all three elementary schools.
The possibility of reconfiguring our elementary and middle schools has been contemplated for years. In 2018, Regional Schools contracted for a study exploring the feasibility and potential costs of creating a grades 6-8 Middle School and a grades 7-12 High School. The second option was estimated to cost at least $40 million, whereas the cost of the first option was deemed to be essentially zero. In 2019, and in light of the study, the Regional School District authorized formation of a Middle School Grade-Span Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring the factors, impacts, and potential pros and cons of moving 6th-graders to a Middle School; the committee was not tasked with developing a recommendation, which falls to the elementary school committees of our region (that is, Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury). The Advisory Committee was about to issue its report in the winter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, upending all plans.
With the pandemic receding, the Grade-Span report was released this past April, and the Regional School Committee began discussing the matter in May. The only decision yet taken at the Regional level was to allow the elementary school districts to begin their own deliberations, if interested. The Amherst School Committee has decided to study the pros and cons of moving our 6th-graders to the middle school, and in the fall will begin a community engagement process in which information, options, and feedback will be shared and gathered. The goal is to arrive at a decision before the December holidays so that teachers and administrators can begin planning how to best design and accommodate the chosen programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The crowding of the elementary schools described above (as well as the need to define the size and scope of the new elementary school building project) now gives urgency to the question but is not the original impetus for considering the move.
Some families are alarmed at the possibility that ARMS might become a 6-8-grade school. I served on the Grade-Span Committee with outstanding, thoughtful elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, as well as other parents. I am confident that, should the 6th-graders move to ARMS, they will do so only after a well planned curriculum, environment, and support systems are developed that are appropriate for these young people’s educational and social/emotional needs. I do not believe they will be tossed into the current 7-8 program and left to make their own way. However, as our community begins the discussion about where to best locate 6th grade, it will be important to have an understanding of the alternative – what the elementary school environments will be like during the next several post-covid years.