NEWTOWN >> At a meeting that Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Fraser called one of the most important in the history of the district, the school board on July 24 adopted a hybrid school reopening plan for the 2020-21 school year.
In a split vote cast in the wee hours of Friday morning, the board approved the reopening steering team’s recommended plan that will push the start of the new school year to after Labor Day followed by 14 days of virtual distance learning and then a parental choice between a hybrid model and a 100 percent at home virtual learning option.
Voting in favor of the hybrid plan were Board President Andy Block along with members Ed Tate, Michael Thorwart, Mariann McKee and Denise Brooks. Voting against were Ed Solomon, Kristin Marcell, Mark Byelich and Joseph Hidalgo.
“As a parent, my heart wants my senior in school,” said Block. “I want all families to have a choice. But unfortunately it’s not that cut and dry for me. I’ve got to consider the welfare and the sustainability of the entire district.
“I’m inclined to support the administration’s recommendation for the following reasons,” continued Block. “It’s responsible and as safe as it possibly can be for students, staff and their families given the current state of the virus. It provides more choice. It’s practical and it gives our students, faculty and families the time to prepare and get comfortable in the virtual environment and the steaming setting, it allows us to take one month to learn from the reopening experiences in other districts. And lastly, it’s flexible.”
Thorwart said he would support the administration’s recommendation, but with a caveat “that I don’t plan on staying there for the entire school year.
“I like the hybrid approach and the delay because it eases us in. But I don’t envision a full year of hybrid,” he said. “I see this cascading rather quickly into into full time, back to normal. I don’t think we can continue hybrid for an entire school year. The hybrid model builds a level of confidence for our teaching staff, for our more concerned parents. It brings in less students. From a staffing point, all it’s doing is buying you some social distancing. Me, personally, I don’t know what that gives you for a virus like this, but if it makes people feel more comfortable, brings people back to work and makes them feel safe, fine.”
Tate also supported the administration’s recommendation, calling it “a good compromise” between 100 percent in classroom and 100 percent virtual.
“We’re taking steps that are well thought out and moving forward. And there’s certainty, which is what parents want,” he said.
“We are moving toward in-school instruction, which is a goal all of us support,” continued Tate. “At the same time what we have to do is balance the health and safety of our students and our staff and I think we are doing this by the delay. By giving the administration until Sept. 29 to begin in classroom instruction, they will be better prepared for a safer environment. I would rather we start in-classroom instruction on Sept. 1. But the administration is saying it’s smarter and it’s better for our staff and our students to wait until Sept. 29.”
Looking ahead, Tate said there’s nothing to prevent the administration from changing direction later in the school year to a 100 percent in-school model. “But what we’re doing now is the prudent thing. We’re offering some certainty that there will be in-classroom instruction and there could be five days a week in October, November or December. There’s nothing to preclude that.”
McKee said the pandemic has placed Council Rock and school districts across the nation “in an impossible situation with impossible choices to make, from individual health concerns to child care to loss of employment. And yet a decision is required and a plan needs to be developed.
“Whatever choice we make, the reopening plan will not be ideal for everyone,” said McKee. “I do know that every step that we have taken, health and safety has been the top priority in all of this. And if that’s going to be my top priority then I have to agree with the recommendation of the steering committee. That is our safest option and the best accommodation for our community.”
Brooks added that the only way she would feel comfortable reopening schools is to follow the administration’s recommendation and to delay the start of the school year, open virtually and move toward a hybrid model.
“That would give us more time to answer questions, to fine tune the details of the plan and collect information from other districts that are opening so we can bring a much safer opening to Council Rock.“
The four members opposed to the hybrid option favored a scenario proposed by Marcell that would have expanded options at the elementary level to three - 100 percent in-school, a hybrid or a 100 percent virtual learning option.
“Since last March we have learned that virtual learning is far from a perfect solution,” said Marcell. “In a classroom every child has similar resources, the same teacher, the same books, the same instruction time. At home it is almost impossible to have that consistency. Some homes have better access to technology and others lack quality internet connection. Some families have stay at home parents to help or the resources to hire tutors and or former teachers. Others may not. Safety of course is paramount. And bravo to our health and safety plan.
“But not knowing whether our students will be in a building by the end of September is troubling to me,” said Marcell. “It feels like we are letting the clock run out until the next delay of school, essentially creating a de facto 100 percent virtual mode.”
Solomon, who supports 100 percent in person and 100 percent choice, said he continues to struggle with the hybrid model, worried that two days of in-class instruction is not enough for some children who may struggle with online learning.
“I see too many issues with the hybrid plan,” said Solomon. “I think it’s a compromise and a good way of getting kids in school but I think they’re going to be shortchanged.”
Byelich said surveys done by the district indicate that 80 percent want their kids back in school while 50 percent of the staff favor a return to the classroom.
“I don’t know how we go against that,” he said. “The CDC has a list on its website of why it’s important to open schools for instruction. That’s something we can do. We can make that happen. Give our community options. We can stagger. We can bring the little kids in. Then maybe we bring in the middle school kids. And then the high school kids. Whatever footing we need to be comfortable, but we can do it. There’s no reason not to.”
Under the plan adopted by the board and subject to change by the Governor’s orders, the opening of school will be delayed to Sept. 8 to give the district additional time to educate its staff on virtual learning and live streaming technologies.
On Sept. 8, students will then begin the new school year with three weeks (14 days) of at-home virtual learning, allowing the district time to transition to a combination hybrid and virtual learning model.
“I assure you that the virtual learning experience that we will provide will be drastically improved over what most of our students experienced in the spring,” said Dr. Fraser. “That was no one’s fault. It was a tough set of circumstances, but we have now had time and we’re confident about the quality that we will offer.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 29, the district will then transition to a parental choice option of either a hybrid learning (two days of in-person instruction and three days of at-home learning) or a 100 percent at home virtual learning option.
Parents will have until midnight on Tuesday, August 4 to register their children for either the hybrid or virtual learning option. And at the close of each marking period moving forward in the school year will have the option to change their options.
Exceptions include special education students who will have the option to attend school four days a week (typically Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays). And at the Kindergarten level, where students who opt for the hybrid model will attend for a full day of school two days a week (typically either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday).
Fraser said the district’s reopening steering team quickly ruled out the 100 percent in-person option based solely on the district’s inability to maintain six feet of social distancing between students inside the classroom.
“Fifty-seven percent who answered our survey said that would be their choice,” said Fraser of the 100 percent in-person option. “That means on any given day we’re going to have 57 percent of our students in the hallways, in the cafeteria, etc. And in the classroom, where students spend the bulk of their day, there is no way we would meet or even come close to the six feet of social distancing.”
Even under the hybrid model, Fraser said there may be cases where “we can’t guarantee” six feet of social distancing in every classroom instance.
“Do I think that we’ll hit it in some classrooms, I’m optimistic,” said Fraser. “But I don’t know that for sure and frankly we won’t know that for sure until we know what our registration numbers are and we break that down class by class. But if we’re not hitting six feet social distancing, we’re going to be real close.”
In other action, the board adopted an extensive health and safety plan that sets forth Social Distancing and Other Safety Protocols, including how classrooms are organized, hallway traffic flow, lunchroom seating and restrictions, frequent hand washing and use of hand sanitizer, school bus requirements, and others.
The plan also outlines a daily action plan for cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and ventilating learning spaces, surfaces, and any other areas used by students (restrooms, drinking fountains, hallways, transportation, etc.).