PENNSBURY >> District students will be attending school virtually through at least the end of January under a revised Continuity of Education plan unanimously approved by the school board on August 21.
“This is typically a moment when we celebrate what’s possible and what’s in front of us. But today is not one of the happiest days, but the steps we are taking tonight are necessary ones,” said Superintendent Dr. William Gretzula at the outset of the meeting. “We are proposing that we cannot safely return to schools, which had long been hoped since March.”
Just weeks before on July 30 the board approved a plan that would have begun the school year virtually and then offered parents the option of a hybrid model beginning in October with students attending school two days a week and virtually the other three days.
“We all want to go back to normal,” said board President TR Kannan. “There’s no substitute for having kids in schools every day. We all want that. But we need to be realistic and stop looking for that perfect solution in this imperfect world,” he said. “We may reopen schools and be wrong. We may go virtual and be wrong. But being wrong in one of those situations is much worse than the other.”
Prior to the board vote, Gretzula recommended going virtual for the first semester after reviewing the situation “and trying to do what is best for the kids.
“If you look at what we can do and what’s possible, we can ensure that the teaching and learning experience in the full remote model is as strong as possible, which the board has continued to advocate and push the administration to achieve,” said Gretzula.
“The recommendation this evening is a hardship on many families. And we recognize that. To that end we will communicate a plan for food distribution as we had in the spring to ensure that families need not worry,” he continued. “In terms of child care there are options being formed outside of the district’s oversight. KidsKare is looking at facilities outside of the district to potentially host some childcare opportunities. The YMCA also is offering specific programs.”
Despite the significant changes to the start of this school year, Gretzula said he remains “incredibly optimistic that our children and staff are going to rise to the occasion and they’re going to make this year one that we’ll never forget. Every day is a chance to form close bonds, to make lasting memories. While we may begin remotely I expect there will be plenty of magical moments for our students and staff to shine.”
So why the change to its Continuity of Education plan?
Basically is boils down to the chance of significant disruption to the semester from COVID-19, scheduling and continuity issues.
During a call between local superintendents and five doctors from the Philadelphia area, Gretzula said he learned that while surrounding counties are experiencing a reduction in cases, others to the west have seen slight upticks. And if one thing is known from the spring, is that this virus spread can quickly and result in a domino affect.
With that said, Gretzula said while Bucks County is trending better, the health department is saying in its guidance that if there is no interschool spread, schools should not be closed. Rather the students and staff impacted be sent home for 14 days of quarantine.
“We’re fooling ourselves to think that we’re not going to have a case. And that case isn’t going to lead to significant disruption and we are going to find ourselves in an emergency closure again," Gretzula told the school board.
“In fact the area doctors said exercising patience is worth it,” said Gretzula. “We’ve talked about five percent positivity as an indicator of when we can bring kids back. One of the doctors on the call said we need to give ourselves the longest runway possible. He recommended that we look for two to three percent positivity rates to do that.
“Multiple doctors on that call said you’re going to be shutting down schools quickly if you bring kids back,” continued Gretzula. “I don’t want to be in that situation where we are in emergency closure. It disrupts families, kids and staff,” he said.
Scheduling is another concern, said the superintendent.
Under the previous board approved plan, the hybrid option would begin in October. That would mean that students could potentially see a change in teachers in the middle of a marking period, which is “certainly not ideal in any situation,” said Gretzula.
“We probably don’t want to make unnecessary changes in the middle of marking periods,” he said, which would mean pushing the start of the hybrid option to November, a notoriously challenging month to schedule with Thanksgiving, Veterans Day and Parental Conferences.
“It would certainly be a challenge to bring kids back in a hybrid and full remote model during November,” he said. “It would certainly be concerning.”
On top of that, flu season begins in November which complicates matters in determining who has Covid and who has the flu.
“I believe there’s stability in knowing,” said Gretzula. “So our recommendation is to maintain the Continuity of Education plan by beginning the school year in full remote model with 100 percent of the students and begin the AB Hybrid option for students beginning on Tuesday, Feb. 2 if conditions are appropriate.”
For the remote model, Gretzula said the district will be implementing a learning plan that will be largely synchronous, which means live instruction in virtual classrooms.
“The objective is to create an environment for both students and teachers that mimics the school experience in a traditional classroom setting as best as possible,” said Gretzula.
Students also will be assigned independent work and learning activities, homework and projects just like they would in any other educational setting.
“So when we talk about full remote, that doesn’t mean full virtual, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to have synchronous schedules,” said Gretzula. “Teachers are going to be in it live, but there’s other work kids are going to have to do away from their computer screen.”
Teachers will be utilizing a wide variety of assessment practices to hold students accountable to deadlines for learning objectives. It will follow traditional grading practices.
“Back in the spring we talked about just completing 60 percent or 80 percent. That’s not the expectation. This is school as close as possible using our traditional assessment practices,” he said.
The first day is school for students is Tuesday, September 8.
For additional guidance on remote learning, click here.