After the school boards of Bensalem, Bristol Borough and other districts throughout Lower Bucks County announced fully remote starts for the 2020-21 academic year, it didn’t come as much surprise that Neshaminy followed suit.
The board voted 7-1 during a virtual Aug. 12 meeting to begin classes online Sept. 8 (rather than Sept. 2 and 3), introduce a hybrid option Oct. 5 (if COVID-19 circumstances allow it) and have all students in the buildings Nov. 2. Desks would be separated by at least 6 feet while in the hybrid phase, and 3 feet when all students return.
“That gives us a full week with our staff that we can prepare both for the online experience and for what will end up being student orientation days,” said Superintendent Dr. Rob McGee.
Schedules will begin with four days (Monday-Thursday) of asynchronous learning, which means students complete assignments on their own time. Synchronous, or real-time instruction, takes place Friday. All students will receive a district-issued device.
Throughout September, grades will be split into “red” and “blue” teams, and have an assigned day to physically tour their school and meet teachers in person. According to McGee, this gives students the opportunity to see the new setup, which includes desks in the cafeteria, instead of tables. It also gives staff and the administration the ability to see if they can safely handle the return of students for a hybrid model (two days of in-person learning, three days remote in the same “red” and “blue” teams).
If hybrid and in-person options are not possible because of a spike in COVID-19 cases, McGee said synchronous instruction would be expanded to three days. In all scenarios, even 100 percent remote, teachers would be conducting lessons from the classroom.
“Our plan is to bring our teachers in so they have access to our technology, our support. They have access to each other to produce a better product,” said McGee.
Additionally, a “Canvas opt-out” option is available for parents hesitant to send their children back if/when hybrid and in-person is implemented. The student can continue to learn online, and will have a seat saved for them in class when they are ready to return.
For students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), McGee said the goal is to give them the option to physically come to school for four days, even in September.
Unlike in the spring, when the district was forced to transition to online learning with little notice, McGee said the expectations of students will be higher. There will be grading, and those grades will transfer to in-class when that shift happens. McGee added that staff is now more knowledgeable on how to use Zoom, which has features to chat, call on students and break them up into groups.
“Ours is the most flexible plan out there. It gives us the most opportunity,” said board president Stephen Pirritano. “While we’re not starting as fast as some, we have the ability to move faster once the plan’s in place.”
When asked why Neshaminy isn’t implementing an “all-in” model from the start, Pirritano named lack of staff and materials as two of the biggest factors. While procuring materials, such as floor markings and additional desks, is easy to solve, he said hiring extra cafeteria support and individuals to disinfect high-touch areas is a harder feat.
“You have this problem where the government is compensating people on not only unemployment, but additional unemployment that people are making more staying home than coming to work,” said Pirritano. “We really feel that’s going to drag on our ability to get the applicants we need.”
During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents were split down the middle. While some advocated for a fully remote start, others shared concerns.
Resident Mark Shubin expressed disappointment that the school year isn’t starting, at minimum, with a hybrid format.
“What tolerable risk is the school district willing to take to put kids back into school?” he asked, adding that kids should have as much synchronous learning as possible.
Michael Schumacher, whose daughter is entering fifth grade, expressed his belief that the community isn’t ready for in-person instruction. Citing the incident at Sesame Place, where a 17-year-old worker was assaulted after asking a guest to put on a mask, he said disciplinary actions need to be outlined regarding mask-wearing before sending kids back. Schumacher also criticized the district’s plan to evaluate the COVID-19 situation monthly in September and October, and said each phase should last at least two months.
“You need more than one month to see if any cases of the disease have spread to students in the buildings,” he said.
Other topics covered were transportation (seats and high-touch areas will be wiped down in between runs); contact tracing, which will be conducted by the Bucks County Health Department, if needed; temperature screenings, which parents must do at home each morning; and possible child care for working parents (the district is in preliminary discussions with Neshaminy Kids Club).
More details will be announced in the coming weeks, including mask-wearing policies and flexibility for students who are unable to participate in synchronous online lectures due to circumstances outside of their control, such as having to babysit a younger sibling.
“It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Let’s get off to a good start, a solid start,” said board member Paul Saraullo. “The last thing you want to do is start this thing and have it fall apart. It’s quite a monumental task. Everything we just did tonight could get scrapped at any given time.”
“This isn’t like making a call on a school day,” added board member Marty Sullivan. “This is people’s lives.”
Visit neshaminy.org/reopen for updates and more information.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com