Mt. Lebanon students whose families choose for them to attend school in person will start to do so on a part-time basis in October.

When they report, for the first time since COVID-19 forced school closures after March 13, depends on their grade levels.

The school board voted unanimously Monday to approve two separate revised reopening learning plans for secondary and elementary students. Both call for a hybrid model of education, blending in-person and remote instruction, but the scheduling for each differs considerably.

Students at Jefferson and Mellon middle schools, sixth through eighth grades, and Mt. Lebanon High School are scheduled to report as soon as Oct. 5. They will be divided into two cohorts at each school, with one attending in person Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other Thursdays and Fridays.

Wednesdays are reserved for online instruction, to provide an opportunity for the buildings to be cleaned thoroughly.

For first- through fifth-graders at Foster, Hoover, Howe, Markham, Jefferson, Lincoln and Washington elementary schools, the earliest in-person date is Oct. 13. And in contrast to the secondary schedule, plans call for them to attend school half a day, either in the morning or afternoon, and learn remotely during the other half.

The schedule for kindergartners, meanwhile, has them in school for half a day two days a week.

Plus families continue to have the option of fully remote education through the Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy, with district teachers providing instruction. All students have been learning in that manner since the Aug. 31 start of the academic year.

The school board had voted earlier in August to continue remote learning through the first nine-week grading period, which concludes at the end of October. But during the board’s Sept. 14 discussion meeting, Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer requested members consider starting hybrid education Oct. 5.

Later in the week of the discussion meeting, administrators came up with a separate plan for students in first through fifth grades.

“We feel that this daily interaction with the teacher is much better suited with young children rather than the long breaks going with the 2-1-2 model, since they are less able, in general, to manage on their own.” Marybeth Irvin, assistant superintendent for elementary education, said Sept. 21.

“The sudden switch was a conversation with Dr. Steinhauer that allowed us to consider Oct. 13 as a more appropriate target date to make that change,” she added. “At the time, when we were looking at Oct. 5 as a ‘hard’ start, that was just not going to be possible to change the mode.”

Cleaning is to occur at the elementary schools between dismissal of the morning cohort at 11:15 and the arrival of the afternoon students at 12:45. Other measures against the spread of COVID-19, as noted in the district’s health and safety plan, will be taken.

“We feel confident that we will be able to mitigate any spread of the virus to the greatest of our ability,” Irvin said. “We also are aware of a couple of other districts that have been using this hybrid model for a number of weeks with great success.”

Although the August vote was unanimous to start the school year on a fully remote basis, primarily because of staffing considerations, some board members expressed support for students returning to classrooms as soon as possible. Jacob Wyland and Hugh Beal were among them.

“My baseline for returning students to school begins with, can it be done safely?” Wyland said prior to the Sept. 21 votes on the revised plans.” When we take into consideration the metrics that we’ve been provided, the feedback from experts and the robust health and safety plan that the administration has put together, I believe that it is possible to return to school safely.”

Beal spoke about the timing.

“I fully grasp the community’s surprise with the early move to hybrid, and I appreciate and sympathize with the disruptions that have resulted,” he said. “I feel, however, that our students, who already are behind in their educational efforts, learn best in school and in the presence of our educators, our outstanding educators.”

Board member Elaine Cappucci said the decision for students to return earlier than anticipated might seem to be abrupt.

“However, we really have been planning for what hybrid education would look like since the spring, and Dr. Steinhauer did notify the board, the teachers, union leaders, the administration, the municipality before making his recommendation last week,” she said. “It wasn’t a hastily made decision made by one person, which we have been hearing over and over.”

Cappucci also addressed the overall uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

“Change in this year will be constant, and I know that’s upsetting and it’s very difficult for families,” she said. “So support your teachers, support your kids and let them know that we are doing our best to give the people the choice to figure out what is the best education for their child.”

Regarding the choices families of secondary students had made through Sept. 21, Steinhauer gave the figures of hybrid vs. cyber as 74% and 23%, respectively, at the high school; 66% and 33% at Mellon Middle School; and 74% and 24% at Jefferson Middle School.

Families of elementary students were asked to submit their selections by Sept. 24, including the preference of morning or afternoon for youngsters attending in person.

“I know that our Mt. Lebanon teachers can make Mt. Lebanon hybrid and cyber options work,” said Sarah Olbrich, board president. “While there are families who will not agree with all of our decisions, please know that personally, I always try to keep the best educational interest of all 5,550 kids in our district in mind with my votes.”

Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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