In a turnaround from a decision made two weeks previously, Bethel Park School Board approved a plan Tuesday that calls for all students to start the academic year by learning remotely.
According to the district’s Revised Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan, the goal is for students to attend classes in person on a part-time basis in early October and full-time in January.
“If the conditions permit us to return to full school and we have confidence to show that we can do that safely, that decision can happen earlier than what is indicated on this plan,” high school principal Joe Villani said.
He gave a detailed presentation during the early stages of the four-hour-plus meeting, which culminated in the board voting 7-2 in favor of the plan. Ken Nagel and Russ Spicuzza were opposed.
On July 28, the board agreed on a plan to open the school year with a return to the traditional in-person format, which was disrupted in mid-March by closures in connection with COVID-19.
During the next two weeks, various factors contributed to the change in direction, including recommendations by the state departments of health and education that were released Aug. 10.
Based on Allegheny County’s reported incidences of COVID-19 and percentage of positive tests for the disease, the recommendations call for county school districts to operate either in a fully remote setting or a blend of in-class or remote instruction.
According to Joseph Dimperio, Bethel Park interim superintendent, an emphasis on taking a precautionary approach weighed significantly into revising the reopening plan to incorporate the remote option.
“Needless to say, our overriding consideration in returning students and staff to school is school safety,” he said.
During a prolonged public comment portion of the Aug. 11 meeting, many residents expressed support for either a full-time or hybrid-instruction start to the school year, as did some board members.
Nagel, in fact, called for a vote to amend the reopening plan to incorporate the hybrid option, but the measure failed.
For students, instruction starts Sept. 5 following in-service days for teachers, during which they will receive training in working with the district’s new learning management system.
“We have shifted many of our later in-service dates to the beginning of the year, to provide additional training for our faculty and staff so they are better equipped and able to work with our students on the first day of school,” Villani said.
As presented in the reopening plan, the district’s remote learning schedule calls for two days of synchronous, or real-time, learning for each student, on a staggered basis. During those days, students will have opportunities to ask questions of teachers, participate in discussions and have some degree of social interaction among classmates.
Three days a week are scheduled for asynchronous learning, which includes such features as recorded presentations, readings and videos, along with time to complete assignments and submit them for feedback.
“When we go to hybrid, the only thing that changes is that the students are accessing that live interaction in the building versus remotely, still in that small-group, staggered schedule,” Villani said.
At that point, the district’s buildings would reach occupancy of about 50% capacity. Capacity is anticipated at more than 90% for full-classroom instruction, as students have the option no matter what the circumstances to learn remotely.
In anticipation of students returning, staff members have made modifications to classrooms, cafeterias and other spaces to allow for sufficient social distancing when building occupants take “mask breaks” from facial protection, such as during lunchtime.
Along with approving the reopening plan, school board members voted unanimously Aug. 11 in favor of extending the period by which property owners can pay real estate taxes without facing a 10% penalty. The deadline now is Dec. 31, two months later than usual.
For a 2% discount on payments, the deadline remains at Aug. 31.