DANVERS, MA – The Danvers School Committee and Danvers Teachers Association agreed in August about what would happen to the district's hybrid learning model should coronavirus cases start rising.
State guidance, at the time, said that any community with 8.0 or more cases per 100,000 people was at high risk for community spread. Cities and towns designated "high risk" for three weeks in a row were advised to go to remote-only learning.
In Danvers, it was agreed to go one step further and make the move to remote after two weeks in the "red" high-risk territory.
"When we did the original memo of understanding it was under certain circumstances with the union," Danvers School Committee Chair David Thomson told Patch on Friday. "Because we have a really good relationship with the teachers' union – or had a really good relationship – we said we would do two weeks instead of three.
"It was based on the circumstances at the time. Over time, those circumstances have changed."
As recently as two weeks ago, Danvers Superintendent of Schools Lisa Dana and Town Manager Steve Bartha issued a joint statement warning of the implications of rising coronavirus numbers in the town, and affirming the rationale behind going to fully remote learning if the town remained "in the red" two weeks in a row.
"Town leaders agree that two weeks in the high-risk category is an appropriate benchmark for our schools and for other community-related activities," Bartha and Dana said in the statement.
Danvers was designated a "high-risk" community for the first time last Thursday. This week, the town was fully expected to be designated "high risk" for a second week, meaning Monday would be the first day of fully remote learning in Danvers Public Schools per the August agreement.
Only, in the meantime, the state's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued new guidance that schools should continue in-person learning while "in the red" until there was evidence of a school-wide outbreak. The Danvers School Committee held a meeting on Monday and passed a motion to review the two-week automatic switch to remote, and seek consultation with the Danvers Teachers Association to alter their August memo of agreement.
Only on Friday — the same day sweeping new restrictions involving curfews, early business closures and mask-wearing in public even when social distancing is possible took effect because of soaring coronavirus levels — the state significantly eased the metrics it uses to determine a high-risk community to the extent that the number of communities considered "high risk" dropped from 121 to 16.
It was an explicit move to avoid the types of automatic triggers that would have sent dozens of schools districts — like Danvers — across the state into remote learning.
"We continue to see too many communities with children learning in remote-only models," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a news conference.
The shift means that while Thomson said the Danvers School Committee wants to restore a dialogue and good working relationship with the Danvers Teachers Association on the issue, the district can unilaterally remain in the hybrid model.
"The goal was to work with them," Thomson said. "It still is to work with them, Even though it's kind of a moot point now."
Thomson said the objective of the school committee all along has been maintaining consistency with public guidelines, but changing guidelines from the state have been frustrating.
"There has been confusion from the state with their requirements, which makes it difficult for the cities and towns," he said. "It's challenging that a lot of it has not been out there in advance of when decisions have to be made. That’s what kind of led us to this situation.
"The goal is obviously to get kids in class. Live instruction is really important as long as it's safe."
What has shifted through changing state metrics, however, is the very definition of "safe."
"There is no such thing as 'no risk' right now," Danvers Board of Health Director Mark Carleo said at Monday's School Committee meeting. "Right now, the discussion is: 'What level of risk is acceptable?'"
Thomson said everyone's intention remains to provide the best level of education as safely as possible during an unprecedented pandemic.
"This should not be an us-vs.-them situation, or a parents-vs.-School Committee, or parents-vs.-teachers," he said. "It may sound hokey, but we're all in this together.
"We don't want to stop the conversation. We hope (the Danvers Teachers Association) will want to continue the conversation. I know I speak for every member of the School Committee that all decisions we’ve made have been in good faith."
More Patch Coverage: In Push To Get Kids In Class, MA Changes Coronavirus Map