COUNCIL ROCK >> After successfully transitioning to a hybrid model, the Council Rock School Board is considering moving to a five-day-a-week, in-person learning model for K to 12 in mid-November.
At the board’s October 1 meeting, the majority of the board said they would likely support the change despite the administration’s recommendation against the move.
Board members Dr. Michael Thorwart, Mark Byelich, Ed Salamon, Kristin Marcell and Joseph Hidalgo said they would favor the change while members Denise Brooks, Mariann McKee and Ed Tate said the district should continue with the virtual and hybrid models. Board President Andy Block was not in attendance at the meeting.
“I couldn’t be happier to be having this discussion today about moving to five days,” said Marcell, who had offered a motion in July for five day instruction for elementary students. “For me, it comes down to doing what is best for our students ... I have heard great support and praise for our teachers and staff. However, there is some concern about how virtual learning has affected many of our students.
“Through many phone calls and emails the following words stuck out - loss of self-confidence, failing social and mental development, mental health, struggling badly, falling behind, depression, withdrawn, regression, emotional meltdown, unable to function, hate school. I could keep going, but this is what scares me if we don’t move forward with five day in person school for all of our students,” she said. “I hear families crying out for help and the parents who are trying to balance their work and virtual learning, paying for additional tutors and babysitters and worrying about the mental health of their kids.”
“I’m at my wits end,” said Hidalgo. “I’m worried about the education that we’re here to do ... There’s a portion of our students we are not serving and we can’t serve them in this capacity. I believe we can take care of business with everybody taking individual responsibility ... I do believe it’s possible to do (opening up five days a week for in person learning). It’s being done all over the country. And even if we go back to five days, there’s nothing stopping us from shutting down a school when we need to ... We’re here to educate the children and you can’t do it virtually for many of them. It’s breaking my heart because I know the teachers are doing everything they can. They are frustrated, too.”
Brooks extended her appreciation to teachers, staff, parents and students who have worked hard and are dedicated to “make the situation that we’re in as positive as it can be.
“There is not a single person on this board, in the administration or in this community who wants anything but a five day instruction opportunity. I think we’re all aligned on that. Where we struggle is in the how and the when in how we get there,” said Brooks.
“It is uncomfortable to me that we’re even having this conversation where there is no specific scientific objective measure is guiding us to have this,” said Brooks citing state metrics that have yet to place Bucks in the low zone , safe to return to five-day-a-week in-school instruction category.
“The decision to move to five days is not only absent of data it also positions us to counter what we know to be the safe measures we need to live in a world where Covid exists. That means hand washing, masks, well ventilated spaces, six feet of social distancing and avoiding large crowds. We’re in a situation now in our hybrid where most of our students are socially distanced and those other factors can be enforced. If we are talking about five day, what we’re saying is we are willfully going against one of the very factors that is critical for our safety because we know we will not be able to achieve the kind of social distancing that we need to keep our students and staff safe.”
If the board votes in favor of the change later this month change, the five day a week model would replace the current hybrid model and would go into effect on Monday, November 16. The full virtual model would continue to be offered as an option and would not be impacted.
The Board is scheduled to deliberate and vote on the change at a Special Board Meeting scheduled for Thursday, October 22 beginning at 7 PM.
Also at that meeting, the Board will vote on the quarantine model to be used starting on Friday, October 23. The District is currently using the CDC’s quarantine model instead of Bucks County Department of Health’s modified quarantine model.
In the meantime, the public is encouraged to reach out to the district and to board members with their comments and concerns.
At the October 1 meeting, Superintendent Dr. Robert Fraser recommended that the district continue with the hybrid and virtual learning models and not to move to the five day a week model.
Fraser, while agreeing with every board member that he’d like to see the kids back in the classroom five days a week, said “the troubling piece” is how to get everyone back safely.
“That’s where my rub comes in,” he said. “Yes, my job is to make sure that education is the absolute best that it can be, but it’s also to make sure 11,000 students and 1400 staff members go home just as safe, just as healthy as when they showed up.
“I don’t believe right now is the time for us to be making this move,” said Fraser. “We’re only two days into the hybrid model. The point of the hybrid model is to create social distancing. It’s mitigation,” he said. “I struggle with this because we know we’re not going to be able to social distance if and when we go back to five days a week,” he said.
Fraser also expressed concern over the district’s ability to literally pull off a five day a week in school program without COVID-19 implications.
“With that said, you have my word that we will do everything and anything that we can possibly do to pull that off,” he said. “I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t share my concerns.”
Citing data points, Fraser said between April and October the number of Covid-19 cases among children ages 0 to 18 has increased from two to 10 percent, a five-fold increase.
“That is a pretty compelling data point on its own, but when you couple it with the fact that we now have multiple large scale studies that show that children are vectors of Covid-19, in particular children who are late elementary, middle school and high school, I’m concerned,” he said.
Fraser also disputed claims that schools in the county have already gone back five days a week without implications.
“Yes, Central Bucks is now open five days a week for the kids who want it. That is K to 6 only. We’re here talking about K to 12,” said Fraser. “There’s another district that has been open likewise full-time and that district is K to 8. Their high school is hybrid. There is one district in the county that has done, in theory, what we’re talking about for a number of weeks now. However, in every school they are able to achieve six feet of social distancing. We will not,” said Fraser. “We already aren’t able to achieve it with our hybrid in every classroom.”
In a survey conducted by the district, 57 percent indicated they would take advantage of a five day a week in class program. If that number holds, said Fraser, in K to 12 46 percent of district classrooms won’t be able to social distance.
“And really problematic to me is at the middle level, 65 percent of the classrooms would be unable to social distance. Without a doubt that worries me,” said Fraser. “Knowing that we went from two percent to 10 percent. Knowing that students are spreading it and proven to spread it. And the importance of social distancing, this is the science. So we’re either following the science or we’re not following the science. And as an educational enterprise I would suggest we follow the science.”
Fraser said while he and the majority of the board might not see eye to eye on this topic, “I would like to thank the board for respecting the fact that the district needs to perform a significant amount of work before being able to make change like this.”
Seventy-four percent of the district’s students are currently attending school under the hybrid model, which began September 30 with about 26 percent learning full-time from home.
“Interestingly, since our original registration process, 468 students have now made the switch from hybrid to virtual,” said Fraser.
“I do want to note that I am incredibly proud of our students for their resiliency in switching from one learning platform to another and adjusting to a whole host of new realities in our schools as we continue our efforts to mitigate this virus while educating our students.
“And I am incredibly proud of our staff for these very same reasons. I’d also like to commend our CR teaching staff. The reality is that our staff has been nothing short of phenomenal throughout this pandemic.
“And I do not say that lightly,” said the superintendent. “We’ve had several people who taught today, who will teach tomorrow and next week, some of whom are immuno-compromised, some of whom are battling cancer, some of whom have serious heart conditions and others caring for sick family members at home, etc. They are and they have been completely committed to the students of our Council Rock School District and that makes me very, very grateful to them.
“And I ask you to please thank a teacher and/or a teaching assistant if you haven’t done so,” said Fraser. “Anyone who has needed to take a medical leave needed to take a leave. I am really proud and appreciative of our staff.”
With the move to a hybrid model, the district has implemented a COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard. In keeping with its commitment to transparency, the dashboard is offered to ensure accurate communication of confirmed positive COVID-19 cases among Council Rock students and staff.
In addition to adding the COVID-19 Reporting Dashboard to the Hub, it has also added a one-page flowchart that spells out when families should keep their child home from school and also includes the criteria that families should use to determine when a child should return to school.
“Every time we learn of a positive case, all parents and staff from that school will receive an email notifying them that someone associated with the school has tested positive," said Fraser. "For privacy reasons, this communication will be void of information that could identify the individual. The Bucks County Department of Health, through the contact tracing process, will communicate with anyone who may have been in close personal contact with the positive case.”