BOYERTOWN — Five of nine school board members have expressed support for a full-blown reopening of schools next month, setting aside a more complex plan recommended by the administration aimed at minimizing the spread of the coronavirus.
Superintendent Dana Bedden said the board has four choices when it makes a final vote, which could occur at a special July 21 meeting announced Friday on the district website.
The choices are:
- A total reopening for all students and staff, with some families opting for distance learning;
- A blended reopening balancing in-person and distance learning, achieved largely by having students attend on alternating days of the week;
- Total remote learning, re-engineered and improved over the improvised program the district was forced to adopt when schools were closed with little warning in March;
- And a "scaffolded" approach, with younger students attending school five days a week and older ones, attending three or two days of the week, depending on age.
Bedden reported a survey of 3,799 parents, teachers and students showed 72 percent favor a full return, but noted that "that result is misleading."
When the data is analyzed by who was answering the questions, preferences shift. For example, the vast majority of respondents were parents, and the vast majority of them are parents of high school students.
Both parents and staff at the elementary levels favored the in-person option by a higher margin than staff and parents in the older grades.
Bedden noted that there was "near zero support" for the "blended," alternating days of the week option.
Nathan Yorgey of Douglass (Berks) said the board "is tasked with an unenviable job. There is no right answer as there is a lot of uncertainty about the best way to send children back to school."
Kevin Kratz of New Hanover said he is the father of two high school students and urged the board to reopen schools full time. "Life has all types of risks. We have to face those risks."
During a marathon four-hour meeting Tuesday, attended online by about 300 people, Bedden, Marybeth Torcia, assistant superintendent of student and administrative services, and Michael Stoudt, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, outlined the recommended "scaffolded" approach.
The plan was put together by a 20-member a task force that included administrators, health experts, a board member and teacher and parent representatives.
Under the plan favored by the administration, younger students, kindergarten through grade 6, would attend class every day, with fifth and sixth graders attending classes in the nearest middle school.
Grades seven, eight and nine, would be taught in the high school three days a week, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Grades 10, 11 and 12 would be taught in the high school two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays.
Bedden said this approach provided the best way to ensure social distancing because the school buildings would only be at 75 percent capacity, creating more space to spread out desks (and students).
Majority says no
But five board members — James Brophy, Roger Updegrove, Christine Neiman, Ruth Dieolf and Brian Hemingway — said that while they appreciated the work that the administration had put into drawing up the plan, they favored what Hemingway called "a more aggressive approach."
Brophy, who kicked off the discussion, said he did not want to lose any time by having the administration continue down a path the majority does not support.
He told Bedden, "no matter what plan you put out tonight, there was going to be push back," and told his fellow board members "this is probably the most important vote this board will ever take."
Brophy said he had done his own research and took a swipe at the media, saying it was shooting to "get attention by using scary headlines," and said the media "listened to the science until the science didn't support their viewpoint."
The science Brophy cited indicates "children are less affected by the virus and are less prone to transfer it to adults," he said.
"The risk of having no school," said Brophy, "is higher than the risk of having individual classes."
"A lot of parents need to get back to work, and they need to know if their kids are going back to school," said Neiman.
"I'd like to see a more aggressive approach," said Hemingway. "All the studies," he said, "support going back five days a week."
He added that "I'm not a fan of the mask mandate," which Bedden said had just recently been announced by the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health.
"I'd like to explore whether we can have more say about what happens in our classrooms," Hemingway said.
Citing a surge in children testing positive for the coronavirus in Florida, board member Lisa Hogan disagreed strongly with the idea of sending students back five days a week.
"It's irresponsible and it puts children at risk," Hogan said. "Health and safety is just as important as education."
Brophy, Neiman and Hemingway bristled at Hogan's use of the word "irresponsible" and decried it as a personal attack, which is against the board's rules of conduct.
"I don't think I'm irresponsible," said Neiman. "Our children deserve the education the taxpayers and residents are paying for."
No matter what plan the board ultimately adopts formally, the district will face a daunting list of challenges, not the least of which is transportation in a 100-square-mile district.
Even when the district is not laboring under a pandemic and the health restrictions that come with it, finding enough drivers for the 61 vehicles used by Boyertown can be a struggle.
Given that many drivers are retired, and that the elderly are more vulnerable to the impact of coronavirus, that shortage is likely to be exacerbated when schools open.
Making things more complicated, said Bedden, are the health recommendations for social distancing on school buses. Were they to be followed to the letter, 470 school vehicles would be required.
"If we required six feet of separation, we could only fit 12 students on a 72-passenger bus," said Bedden.
The district has set its sights a little lower, with 48 students on a 72-passenger bus and requirements for assigned seats, to aid in contact tracing should it become necessary.
Another challenge districts face, said Bedden, is how to reduce the risk of spreading the virus during school meals.
One possible strategy will be to have students eat in their classroom whenever possible.
If the cafeteria is used, all workers must be masked and students will have assigned seats to avoid sitting across from each other as much as is feasible.
Many water fountains may be turned off and students encouraged to bring their own water bottles, although, by law, water fountains in the cafeteria will still be turned on.
The possibility of using other locations to feed students will also be explored.
Regular hand-washing will be stressed, as will increased and more frequent cleaning using Environmental Protection Agency-approved cleaners.
Parent and staff screening
Under any scenario in which students are attending class in person, parents will be required to screen their children every morning, both for COVID-19 symptoms and checking temperature, Bedden said.
A similar requirement is made of staff as it is not logistically practical to screen each student and staff member as they enter a building, he said.
Anyone with symptoms or a temperature over 100 degrees will be asked to stay home.
The district is also making plans for fast-response teams should it become evident that a student or staff member is displaying symptoms.
Anyone suspected of having the virus will be required to leave the building immediately and isolation rooms will be set up for students who have to await being picked up.
However, every visitor to a school building will be screened for temperature and denied entry if they will not certify they have no symptoms.
A different classroom
Should students return to school buildings, they will find many changes, Bedden warned.
In the lower grades, even in kindergarten, students will sit at conventional desks and not at group tables as has been typical more recently.
All seating will be in rows to maximize social distancing. "They will be very sterile looking classrooms," Bedden said.
"Everything we talk about that makes for good instruction we can't use with the social distancing model," he said. "We'll be going backwards in time."
The use of lockers will be limited and perhaps even eliminated entirely.
Students may be grouped into cohorts and stay with the same students throughout the day to decrease the risk of spread and aid contact tracing.
In fact, students may stay in the same classroom, or travel to fewer classrooms during day, with teachers coming to the students to reduce social contact.
They district may even enact "one-way hallways," with spacing tape on the floor, to help maintain social distancing.
Access to playgrounds will be limited and may be eliminated all together.
And all students, no matter what age, will be required to wear masks per the state order.
"It's not natural to expect a kindergartner to wear a mask all day, or to tell a third grader they cannot play with their friends," said Bedden.
"But we have no choice in that matter," Bedden said. "We cannot ignore a state mandate."
There is also concern that the schools may suffer from a teacher shortage as a percentage are expected to reconsider returning to school for their own safety, Bedden warned.
Although there has been no formal word from Boyertown's teachers union, "we have staff that are uncomfortable with the idea of returning," he said.
On Thursday, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Commonwealth's largest teachers union, issued a letter to Gov. Wolf advocating for planning for online schooling.
"An increasing number of Pennsylvania educators and parents are concerned that reopening schools for in-person instruction poses significant health risks that, in the current environment, may be impossible to completely prevent," PSEA President Rick Askey wrote.
"It is absolutely essential that every public school entity in Pennsylvania is prepared to deliver online instruction," the letter read.
Stoudt said the administration has been working to improve the online program since March, when a system had to be cobbled together.
He said families who choose the distance learning option for the school year will find a much improved program.
Bedden also acknowledged the difficulty of using substitute teachers, who travel not only between school buildings, but different school districts, potentially carrying the virus along with them.
"We'll be dealing with substitutes who have been in multiple classes in multiple schools," said Bedden.
Since the pandemic first hit, the district has struggled to obtain things like cleaning supplies, gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment.
"We'd order something and it arrives four weeks later," he said of the previous months.
And that was without any students in school, Bedden warned.
"We've been telling state officials that schools will be the next front line, after health care workers, and they have to do something to help," Bedden said.
But officials at the federal, state and county levels are rarely on the same page, said Bedden.
Guidance from the CDC, for example, does not take children's developmental needs into consideration, as do recommendations from the national pediatricians group.
And while Montgomery County has its own health department, Berks County does not. With a foot in each county, Bedden says he attends superintendent meetings in both counties and the guidelines are often not in agreement.
Worse yet, those county health departments "don't report to the state health department," and so there is often conflict among the directives between the county and the state.
"The state has given more guidance to restaurants than to schools," he said.
What guidance the state is offering was updated on Thursday, and on Friday, Montgomery County issued an updated guidance for opening schools.
County recommendations include the role of a pandemic team or coordinator, enhanced communication, identifying high-risk students and staff, health monitoring, and protocols governing hygiene, isolation and quarantine, cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing and mask-wearing, sports and group activities, security, and transportation.
Few school districts in Berks County are choosing the total remote learning option, Bedden said.
Prior to the majority expressing its preference for a full return to classes, Bedden said "total reopening is the most challenging option to prevent the spread of the virus."
"We may be green today and red tomorrow," he said, adding "there is no easy or perfect solution."
"As parents, teachers and administrators, we're all in a tough spot," said Hogan.
"No matter what we do, there will be a risk sending students back to school and different families and teachers all have a different risk tolerance," said board member Jill Dennin.
"The entire educational community has been turned upside down," said School Board President Brandon Foose.
"This is not just a school district effort," said board vice president Melody McWherter. "This has to be a community effort."
On Friday, the district announced a special meeting will be held online using the Zoom platform at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 21 for further "discussion and a possible vote."
Instructions for how to participate are listed at https://www.boyertownasd.org/ the district website.