Mt. Lebanon School Board agreed unanimously to begin the academic year with remote education for the first nine weeks.
The vote finally took place following nearly three-and-a-half hours of discussion, with substantial opportunity for public commentary, during a board meeting conducted virtually Thursday.
The board also met Monday for its regularly scheduled committee meeting, during which Superintendent Timothy Steinhauer presented his recommendation for opening the school year. That meeting topped the four-hour mark, with Mt. Lebanon residents also able to share their opinions.
On Thursday, Steinhauer reiterated his stance on starting the year remotely as a safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.
“It is the safest, most prudent and effective manner to move forward with education in the midst of a public health crisis,” he said. “As incidence and percent positivity rates lower and we reach benchmarks established by Pennsylvania Department of Health or Allegheny County Health Department health, we will safely and gradually return students and staff to school buildings.
“And while I understand and respect the varied opinions in our community,” Steinhauer continued, “it is my duty to recommend a phased in educational approach that is safe, stable and effective for all.
Many of the community members who weighed in argued for a “hybrid” model of education, in which students would attend classes in person two days a week and learn remotely the other three.
The school district has offered Mt. Lebanon Cyber Learning Academy as an option for families, and as of the beginning of the week, more than 1,170 students were registered. As a whole, the district has an enrollment of about 5,500.
Steinhauer acknowledged the potentially adverse effects of remote learning on the social and emotional well-being of students.
“Sometimes I think we underestimate the perseverance, determination, grit that our children have and have developed over the years, either through school programs or through their parents,” he said Monday. “We are keenly aware that teaching online is different than teaching in person, and we’re trying to help our teachers develop the capacity and skill to do that.”
He cited faculty considerations as one of the reasons for his recommendation.
“Over the past several weeks, we have had more than 150 of our teachers and staff indicate that they may not be able to safely return to an in-person environment,” he said. “These requests are made based on documented health issues and eligibility under the various leave allowances.”
The district has about 720 faculty members.
“We need our full teaching staff to do a hybrid option,” Steinhauer said. “In addition, as we’ve seen from some of the parent requests, they’re expecting synchronous learning on the three days that their children are not in the building.”
His reference is to real-time instruction that allows for some degree of virtual interaction with teachers and classmates.
School buildings won’t necessarily be empty while remote learning is taking place.
“We will also provide safe and healthy in-person learning experiences for those students with critical needs that can only be met in person,” Steinhauer said Thursday. “In addition, there may also be other circumstances that will allow the reintegration of students in school facilities in smaller groups.”
Prior to Thursday’s vote, Sarah Olbrich, school board president, spoke about the difficulty in arriving at a decision.
“As you’ve heard during these contentious calls over the past several weeks,” she said about public comments during board meetings, “there is no one solution that will satisfy everyone. And in fact, within each group – be it all in person, all online or hybrid – there are differing opinions on how those solutions could be optimally delivered. This is truly a no-win situation for everyone involved.”
Board members also have had extensive communication with Mt. Lebanon residents outside of the meeting format.
“Through these conversations, we know that online learning that many of our children experienced in the spring was not at times the quality that Mt. Lebanon parents expect. This is attributable to how quickly the change was thrust upon us,” Olbrich said.
She called for efforts toward cooperation as the first day for students approaches Aug. 31.
“Now, more than ever, we as a community need to come together to make this happen,” she said. “Please practice what all of our children are taught in our schools: Be kind, and be respectful of those who may think differently than you.”