Returning to learning

Bensalem Superintendent Sam Lee talks back-to-school safety measures, possible hybrid format

COVID concerns: With a safety plan currently under review by the board of directors, Bensalem Township School District Superintendent Dr. Sam Lee shared details about what local Owl families can anticipate in the fall. Source: Bensalem Township School District

A lot remains uncertain when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially what schooling will look like for the 2020-21 academic year. Will students go back full-time or part-time, or remain home and continue remote learning?

School districts across Bucks County are drafting plans for all three possibilities, garnering feedback from parents and teachers, all while keeping an eye on guidance from the state departments of health and education.

With a safety plan currently under review by the board of directors, Bensalem School District Superintendent Dr. Sam Lee spoke with The Times about what local Owl families can anticipate in the fall.

According to Lee, while the district is prepared for all possible scenarios, it will most likely resume operations with a hybrid schedule.

“Half our kids in one day, half in the other day. Repeat that cycle, and then a full remote day on the fifth day of school with everybody. We’ll also consider more face-to-face experiences for our special learners,” he said. “Remote learning is not the optimal education environment or experience, but unfortunately these times are moving us toward that. But we also think it’s important that our students stay connected to us.”

The district sent a survey to parents at the end of June, asking if they’d be able to support partial or full remote learning. Their 2,400 responses will be considered by the board.

“We do not want to challenge or inconvenience our families any more than they have been, but we may have no choice,” said Lee.

In the guidance released recently by Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, all students are required to wear masks at all times. To help meet this requirement, Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia announced that the local government will provide face shields to every district.

“We think this is a great way for them to all start off together with the same protection,” she said during a virtual news conference. “It allows the teachers and their peers to see each other’s mouths when they’re speaking.”

Lee said he understands that wearing a face covering all day will be difficult for everyone, particularly for the youngest students.

“They can remove them if they’re safely, socially distanced beyond 6 feet. I would imagine we’ll build in some type of mask breaks. We’ll do what we can to have our kids go outside. They already do for recess and phys ed,” he explained. “I think for most of us, wearing a mask for an extended period of time is not natural and can be uncomfortable. But we know that they’re important in this COVID environment.”

Regarding social distancing in the classroom, the World Health Organization and Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker said 6 feet is preferable when feasible, but 3 feet is sufficient.

Under the state guidance, parents/guardians must screen children for signs of COVID-19 each morning.

“Like we tend to do, we’re going to trust our families and parents, and we’re going to have to trust each other because we’re asking our staff to self screen before we report to work,” said Lee. “If and when a COVID case presents itself, we have developed protocols under the guidance of our Bucks County Department of Health that we’ll enact.”

For parents who are afraid to send their children back to school, Lee said the district has expanded its Cyber Academy to encompass grades K-12.

Sports and extracurricular activities will continue as long as they can be done safely.

“Our athletes have been preparing for the season,” said Lee. “It’s different. It requires our athletes to stay away from each other when not competing, and the training structure is absolutely different than what you may normally see this time of year. Our coaches have them focusing on conditioning and skills, where they don’t have to connect with each other. The requirements are, you can’t share equipment. Everybody brings their own stuff.”

As the start of Bensalem’s 97th year draws ever closer, and the board works to finalize reopening plans under constantly changing circumstances, Lee is asking the community to remain patient and optimistic.

“We miss them. We look forward to being back together again, but only if and when it’s as safe as possible. If we are able to return to school in a hybrid fashion, we’ll be as good as we possibly can be. It’ll provide the opportunity to maintain face-to-face connection between our teachers and staff, which is good for kids, education and for overall well-being,” Lee said. “If we have to go remote, if the world moves us that way, we’ll be much better than we were on June 12. We learned a lot.”

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve on a daily basis, and some of this information may have changed after ‘The Times’ went to print. Visit bensalemsd.org for updates.

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com