PENNSBURY >> Pennsbury will be going entirely virtual during the week following Thanksgiving break to ensure the health of teachers and students and to maintain adequate staffing capacity beyond the holiday.

With COVID-19 case counts rising going into the holiday, the school board voted unanimously on Nov. 19 to modify its phase one reopening plan to return to a virtual learning model for all students from Monday, Nov. 30 through Friday, Dec. 4.

“(After Thanksgiving) we’re going to take a break (from the in-school hybrid model) so we’re not bringing back any COVID to the schools,” said board member Joshua Waldorf of the motion. “It’s a very prudent approach. We’re then able to see where things are going and hopefully bring back not only phase one, but to begin phase two as we anticipate on December 7.”

Following the week of remote learning, students in phase one (Pre-K, Kindergarten, first and second grades and students in specialized learning) are scheduled to return to hybrid learning on Dec. 7 unless conditions related to the virus spread require a change.

Meanwhile, students enrolled in the district’s remote learning model will not be affected by the change. Those students will continue with remote instruction as previously planned.

Under the district’s phased reopening plan, students in grades Pre-K to second grade who selected the hybrid option and students in specialized learning returned to the classroom on November 12 for a combination of in-school and remote learning.

And many did, said Superintendent Dr. William Gretzula, who said there were plenty of smiles as students returned to the classroom for the first time since March.

“As exciting as it has been to see the joy on children’s faces, we have obviously entered a concerning period of the pandemic with cases rising exponentially,” said Gretzula. “To ensure the health and safety of students and staff, and to maintain adequate staffing capacity beyond the Thanksgiving holiday, the members of the Board voted to have all students participate in remote learning from Nov. 30 through Dec. 4.”

In addition, the district is encouraging its teachers and staff to adhere to Governor Wolf’s orders and not to travel out of state during the Thanksgiving Holiday “so we can have a better chance of having students in school in December and beyond,” said Gretzula.

“Cases are up locally, regionally and across the state,” said Gretzula. “These numbers are alarming and are leading to two significant challenges for keeping schools open, not just in Pennsbury, but across the county and state: confidence in contact tracing and staffing to maintain effective instructional delivery in all program.”

The district is still scheduled to enter phase two of its reopening plan on Monday, Dec. 7, which would see a return of students in grades 3 to 8 to a hybrid learning option.

“It is important to recognize that those students in grades 3 to 12 are working remotely from Nov. 30 to Dec. 7,” said Gretzula. “I think that’s a wise move given Thanksgiving and the possible spread and the travel restrictions.”

On Thursday, Dec. 3, during its annual reorganization meeting, Gretzula said the school board will have the opportunity to consider “the path forward” and whether to return to in person instruction for students in phase one and phase two.

Looking to Thanksgiving Week itself, Gretzula said while he’s hopeful the district can staff its schools on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, “if we’re short-staffed it might be necessary to inform the community of a school or district closure that could lead to a shift of students and staff to synchronous instruction at home. I hope that’s not necessary.

“I applaud all of our staff who have done everything possible to support the needs of our students in person,” Gretzula continued. “And we have heard so many encouraging stories of colleagues jumping in to support others. It makes me proud to be a Pennsbury employee.”

In the past 17 days, Pennsbury has reported 22 positive cases of COVID-19 among students and an additional 20 among staff members, according to the superintendent.

Those numbers do not include numerous staff members who have been directed to quarantine or are awaiting close contact determinations. The district is also aware of other staff and students awaiting testing.

“To date, we have no definitive evidence that any of the positives were contracted or transmitted through the schools,” said Gretzula. “There’s speculation. There’s challenges in contact tracing. But we don’t have any evidence that there is spread in school.”

That information aligns with the Center for Disease Control, which said on Thursday there is no evidence that the disease is being spread through schools and recommends that schools not be closed. In fact, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said one of the safest places students can be is in school due to the safety measures in place.

The public can track Pennsbury’s COVID information through its website. Open the COVID-19 resources page and click on health and safety. There you will find the district’s health and safety plan FAQ and a tab that will open up a spreadsheet with up-to-date data.

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