Southbridge school leaders, educators at odds over remote learning

Teachers’ union reportedly sent petition to receiver/superintendent Villar

📸 The Citizen Chronicle file photo of Southbridge High School, the flagship building of Southbridge Public Schools.

SOUTHBRIDGE — Local school teachers are calling for a remote learning model to be implemented after the holiday break, but district leadership has touted the success of in-person learning during the pandemic.

According to a press release issued by the Southbridge Education Association (SEA) on Wednesday afternoon, union members sent a petition to the district’s state-appointed receiver arguing that Southbridge Public Schools should prepare for fully remote learning after the winter break to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community and surrounding towns.

The petition to Southbridge Public Schools Superintendent/Receiver Dr. Jeffrey Villar supports a fully remote learning program through at least January 25 before resuming hybrid or any in-person learning models, according to the press release.

In a written response to the SEA, and obtained by The Citizen Chronicle, Dr. Villar indicated there are no current plans to shift to a full remote learning model.

“The Board of Health has access to all COVID-19 data in Southbridge. They are the experts who are charged with setting COVID-19 related policy. We continue to work closely with them,” Dr. Villar said in a response to the SEA. “At this time, data do not support the action you have prescribed. That is not to say that data in the future will not require such a move.”

He also noted: “Increasingly national data show that students who are engaged in remote learning are suffering terrible consequences.  This makes a decision to move to this model even more difficult and the need for compelling data even more important.  We have nearly 1200 students who attend school in-person. 100% of these families have the option of keeping their child home and participating in remote learning.  They choose to send their children to school.”

The SEA petition also calls on Dr. Villar to ensure that all students have access to the technology necessary to have a successful experience with remote learning. Additionally, the SEA wants transparent and uniform reporting on COVID-19 cases in the community and assurances that staff will not be cut at any point during the school year.

In an open letter to student families on Wednesday, Dr. Villar did not address the SEA’s petition, but did address the district’s on-going response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We create an environment that is safe for our students and all staff members and deliver the highest quality educational experiences possible,” Dr. Villar wrote. “We have also succeeded in minimizing the spread of COVID-19 with the social distancing, mask-wearing, and contact tracing practices that we implemented.”

With a COVID-19 positivity rate that is greater than 100 residents per 1,000, Southbridge is among the communities in Massachusetts with the highest coronavirus rates, and the number of infections in Southbridge has been consistently climbing for many weeks, the SEA statement asserted.

Dr. Villar noted that while the Southbridge community as a whole may have a large number of individuals infected with the coronavirus, the number of students and staff battling COVID-19 is significantly lower.

In his response to the SEA, Dr. Villar said nine of 382 employees of Southbridge Public Schools have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the current school year, with only three of those patients being classroom teachers. Each of the nine cases, he noted, have been contact-traced to sources outside of school.

📸 The Citizen Chronicle file photo of Dr. Jeffrey Villar

“While the percent positivity rate for Southbridge is about 13%, the same rate within the schools is less than 1%,” wrote Dr. Villar in the open letter to families. “This suggests that our contact tracing and quarantine procedures are working and that we are averting the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Villar cited a December 21 memo from Andrew Pelletier, who heads the Town’s Health Department, outlining the ability of Southbridge Public Schools to “ensure 100% compliance with an appropriate 14-day quarantine.”

The Pelletier memo affirms: “The Southbridge School system has thus far successfully managed their program in a manner that has prevented any significant spread of the pandemic within the school system, has readily contained any potential outbreaks and has kept the schools functioning with an ‘In-person’ education model.”

In his response to the SEA, Dr. Villar claimed “uniform support for the Southbridge Public Schools remaining in its current state” from the Southbridge Emergency Operations Center, which includes representatives from the town manager’s office, Town Council, Board of Health, Harrington Hospital, as well as the police and fire departments.

Regardless of support from local health officials relative to the school district’s efforts, the teachers’ union billed its call to action as a proactive effort to protect students and staff.

“Educators want the district to get ahead of the problems we saw after the Thanksgiving break when COVID-19 infections spiked across the state and in Southbridge,” said SEA President Jocelyn Tallis.

Tallis said that with the lack of free and accessible COVID-19 testing in Southbridge, the only safe way to control the spread of the disease is to limit gatherings, and the schools must play a role in that larger community health initiative.

According to the press release, “Members of the SEA have consistently expressed concern with the receiver’s lack of a transparent and comprehensive plan for teaching during the pandemic. The receiver is acting more in line with Gov. Charlie Baker’s agenda to force students into in-person learning and is not guiding the district with enough consideration for the public health crisis in the town.”

“The SEA knows that there is no replacement for in-person learning, and educators have made every effort to maximize opportunities for students to be in the classrooms with their teachers,” Tallis said. “However, the SEA also prioritizes the health and safety of students and their families as well as the health and safety of educators and their families. With vaccines arriving in communities, our most difficult struggles with the coronavirus will be behind us in the foreseeable future. Until then, the SEA is advocating for reasonable measures to slow and reduce the spread of the disease in Southbridge.”

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