Mt. Lebanon School Board narrowly approved a districtwide health and safety plan that addresses precautions against the spread of COVID-19 as the start of the new academic year approaches.

During a four-hour special meeting conducted virtually July 29, the board voted 5-4 in favor of the plan, which subsequently was submitted as required to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Sarah Olbrich, board president, joined Elaine Cappucci, Valerie Fleisher, Stephen Strotmeyer and Jacob Wyland in supporting the measure. Opposed were Hugh Beal, Aviva Diamond, Justin Hacket and Michael Riemer.

“Just because we passed this does not mean that we are reopening in any specific fashion,” Olbrich said immediately following the vote. “This is going to be a robust, difficult discussion that this board will have, and I am hoping that we have some more guidance from the state or from the county regarding what is the option for Mt. Lebanon.”

Board members will vote on a reopening plan on or before Aug. 17, the date of their next regular meeting and two weeks before the scheduled start for student instruction.

As presented July 29 by Marybeth Irvin, assistant superintendent of elementary education, a “draft reopening education plan” contains scenarios that are predicated to a large degree on conditions dubbed the familiar pandemic-era “green,” “yellow” and “red.”

“We know that this terminology, as it’s been used by the state, does not seem to have much relevance associated with it or any metrics tied specifically to it,” Irvin explained. “But we use the words in here because they do reference back to specific requirements within the plan and how we would respond to them.”

Criteria for declaring conditions under which the district operates will be based on guidance from Allegheny County Health Department, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state departments of education and health.

“So if we were able to meet the criteria in ‘green,’ we would be able, as per our health and safety plan, we would propose an in-person instruction opening,” Irvin said.

“Yellow” would entail hybrid instruction, with students attending school two days a week and learning from home for three, and under “red,” all instruction would be conducted remotely. Plus students have been granted the option of attending the fully remote Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy.

An in-person opening would be phased in over a series of days starting Aug. 31.

“We’re looking at bringing students back in smaller groups so that teachers can take the time without the press of a fully loaded building to teach the students the new procedures and practices,” Irvin said.

Those are outlined in the 52-page health and safety plan, which was developed by a recovery steering committee that included representation by various district stakeholders, from administrators and teachers to parents and students.

“Since March 13, when our schools were abruptly closed, the educators in this district have spent their time focused almost exclusively on how to safely return to learning for our students, faculty and staff,” Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer said. “Anything we do or plan must be adaptable, flexible and responsive. What we know today we know will change tomorrow and even the next day.”

Ron Davis, assistant superintendent of secondary education, discussed some of the updates to the health and safety plan in the two weeks prior to July 29, including a major stipulation in accordance with the state Department of Health.

“All staff and all students will be required to wear face coverings. There are very limited exceptions,” Davis said, such as disabilities, medical conditions and mental health conditions, which must be documented.

The plan calls for “face covering breaks throughout the day” during which individuals are to maintain distances of six feet from one another, including lunch periods.

“It is possible that students will eat in classrooms or other areas of the building,” Davis said. “We’re doing an analysis of every building right now about how those spaces can occur.”

Another major consideration within the plan is summarized as, “Students and employees should stay home when sick.”

The plan lists possible symptoms associated with COVID-19 and advises those who potentially have been exposed not to attend school.

In circumstances of confirmed cases, the district will notify Allegheny County Health Department to join in a determination about isolation or quarantine needs, according to Davis.

For families who decide against students attending classes in person, Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy offers an alternative featuring instruction by district teachers. The deadline for opting in is scheduled for Aug. 8.

Students enrolled in the academy are able to participate in after-school activities, programs and athletics, and graduates will receive a Mt. Lebanon diploma.

If the school year opens for five days a week under the “green” condition, students who report to their buildings will receive instruction for using Waterfront Learning, the district’s virtual education tool offered through the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

“We may have students who need to quarantine or need to miss a significant amount of school due to illness,” Irvin said, “and the alignment of the online tools with the in-person model will allow students to continue with their learning if they’re at home, as long as they are well enough to participate.”

Familiarity with Waterfront also would be beneficial in circumstances under which the district were to shift to a condition of “yellow” or “red.”

Under “yellow,” students receive a hybrid of in-person and remote instruction, attending school two days in a row, either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday, and learning at home the other three. Wednesdays are designated for activities including “deep cleaning” of buildings.

“Red,” or full remote instruction, differs from Cyber Learning Academy primarily in that students remain with their assigned teachers and follow schedules similar to their in-person schedules.

The academy offers a format combining synchronous, or real-time, instruction with asynchronous. The balance between the two will be driven by enrollment, with more students in the academy meaning more time teachers can devote to remote learning.

“We understand that a certain level of synchronous instruction is really a hallmark of a quality online program,” Irvin said.

For more information, visit www.mtlsd.org.

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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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