With students scheduled to start the Peters Township School District academic year Aug. 24, officials have some key decisions to make with regard to the opening.
On Monday, the school board plans to vote on adopting a state-mandated Health and Safety Plan for precautions against the spread of COVID-19, plus board members will determine the conditions by which students and staff members return.
The district has established a set of conditions – green, yellow and red – based to some degree on Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan for reopening from the coronavirus shutdown. “Green” calls for students to attend school five days a week in the classroom, and “yellow” provides for a hybrid approach blending in-class and remote learning.
Under all three conditions, students can opt for fully remote learning, and in the case of “red,” everyone would learn remotely.
During a special board meeting July 27, some members said they favor starting the year “green,” while others expressed interest in “yellow.” Among the former was Thomas McMurray, board president.
“Let’s be the leader and try to get going,” he said. “We may have to modify it, but at least Peters Township should be the leader and say, we can try to get some kind of ‘normal’ going here. We’re going to get the best education for our kids.”
Lisa Anderson, who chairs the board’s policy committee, recommended the district perhaps “open at ‘yellow’ with the idea that we’d like to transition to ‘green’” to help lessen the chance of COVID-19 transmission.
Board members participated in a discussion built around Superintendent Jeannine French’s presentation on the draft health and safety plan, the final version of which must be filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
“Everything that we’re doing is not going to be in here,” she cautioned. “This is a high-level compliance document that the board will set into policy.”
A major consideration for school officials is the ability to adapt.
“Our staff has been hard at work recognizing that the conditions may change,” the superintendent said. “We just have to be flexible. We have to monitor and adjust.”
How the district proceeds will be based primarily on guidance as it evolves from various agencies, including the state Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
French said, though, the district’s color-coded conditions would not necessarily correspond with what is designated by the state at any given time.
“This plan is only loosely tied to those phases,” she said. “We have to take into account conditions, more local conditions. We’ve already been told by the secretary of health and the governor’s office that they’re not going to be as nimble in terms of changing the phases.”
She addressed a variety of considerations within the 23-page health and safety plan, from optimizing conditions on buses and in classrooms to encouraging students who feel ill not to attend school.
“We are going to ask parents to screen at home. Kids can act sniffly and sick all the time, so it’s this tension between: Do we send kids in and risk having a lot of infection spread? The downside is that we don’t want kids to miss a whole lot of school,” French said. “We will ask parents to err on the side of caution, because we’re relaxing our attendance requirement.”
Students at home can study using Canvas, the district’s new learning management system.
“If you’re not in remote,” French said about those learning at home full-time, “doing your work in Canvas just because you’re sick is not a long-term solution. But it will allow you to keep up with your work.”
For students and staff members who enter district facilities, including buses, protective masks are required. Exceptions will be made, though, for students who have documented conditions that make wearing them prohibitive.
The health and safety plan calls for periodic “mask breaks,” during which students must maintain a distance of at least six feet from one another.
Regardless of what board members decide Monday about the condition under which the school year opens, it is subject to modification.
“The resolution is going to give Dr. French the ability to adjust, even if the week before school starts the situation has changed,” solicitor Jocelyn Kramer said.
To wrap up the July 27 discussion, the superintendent encouraged continued dialogue among all the district’s stakeholders.
“We’re all in this together,” she said. “If we want to keep our schools open and safe, we have to communicate.”