With the new academic year scheduled to begin Aug. 24, Mt. Lebanon School District officials have been working to develop a plan to resume educating students while facing uncertain circumstances related to COVID-19.
The school board is scheduled to vote vote July 29 on a district Health and Safety Plan for reopening, as required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The meeting will take place through the Zoom platform, with details on public participation available at www.mtlsd.org/schoolboard.
A similarly virtual meeting July 15 featured a comprehensive presentation on the draft version of the plan, conducted primarily by Marybeth Irvin and Ronald Davis, assistant superintendents of elementary and secondary education, respectively.
The plan is based on guidance from the state departments of Health and Education, Allegheny County Health Department and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with Gov. Tom Wolf’s office. Also contributing to the content was input from school and community stakeholders.
Because the agencies’ guidelines are subject to change, often on short notice, the plan includes contingent educational options providing the choice for students of either attending school in person or working online through what has been dubbed Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy.
Irvin said students would be able to move from one format to the other, but preferably on a structured basis.
“We would like a nine-week commitment,” she said. “The reason we think that is a good idea is that it really is kind of a natural endpoint in terms of grading, in terms usually of units and things like that, and provides a really good point to transition.”
She acknowledged, though, that circumstances could prompt requests to change at any given time.
“We will do everything we can to meet the needs of our families,” Irvin said.
Parents and guardians who are considering the online option are asked to fill out a form on the district’s website declaring the intention. A separate form is to be completed for each student in a family.
“We need to know who’s coming so that we can make sure that we can provide the program that is best for your children,” Irvin said.
The Cyber Learning Academy, which is available for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, will offer a blend of synchronous, or real-time, sessions and asynchronous instruction. Students are eligible for all Mt. Lebanon athletics and activities.
During the July 15 meeting, the school board voted unanimously to contract with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit for its Waterfront Learning Services to provide cyber education program options for 2020-21, at a cost not to exceed $296,640.
“This is a framework for a stronger online program for our children,” Sarah Olbrich, board president, said. “We are not outsourcing the actual teaching of our students. The program is being taught by Mt. Lebanon teachers.”
Contingent on necessity, the district also is prepared to offer a “hybrid option” incorporating both in-class and virtual elements
For people who report to the district’s 10 buildings, a series of protocols will be in place, including a facial protection requirement.
“We will be expecting all students and all staff to be masked at all times during the school day while they’re in the building, other than times that it’s not possible, like when they’re eating or drinking,” Irvin said.
Masks will be provided when necessary, she said, and parents and guardians can requests exceptions for students, as per guidelines from governmental agencies.
“We recognize that the guidance does not allow us to ask for documentation. It really is an indication from the family that they’re exercising one of the exceptions outlined by the order,” Davis said, noting staff members would be notified of exceptions so as not to question students.
Other in-school measures to promote health and safety include:
- Revising room configurations to allow for sufficient distances between students;
- Using “desk-based shields,” foam-core sheet products that feature transparent areas through which students can view instructors;
- New protocols for the use of supplies and classroom materials, so as to avoid contact by multiple students;
- An array of changes to food service, including the elimination of buffet-style serving;
- Placement of signs throughout school as reminders of good hygiene practices.
“We’re talking about staggering arrival times so that we don’t have all students reporting to the buildings, gathering in the hallways, going to their lockers at the same time,” Irvin said. “We might use additional entrances to sort of disperse kids in a different way than we have in the past.”
At Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer’s recommendation, district officials are investigating the possibility of students returning to school in phases during the first few days, “rather than having all 1,800 high schoolers report on Day One,” Irvin said. She explained having fewer students in buildings all at once could lead to a more effective indoctrination regarding health and safety protocols.
A primary health consideration, of course, is preventing the spread of germs, particularly those emanating from people who are sick.
“The message that we want our community to hear loud and clear,” Davis said, “is that you should stay home if you’re not feeling well.”
For more information, visit www.mtlsd.org.