Pro-hybrid parents were certainly not rejoicing after the Pennsbury school board’s latest lengthy meeting regarding the reopening of schools for the 2020-21 academic year.
Most decisions voted upon over five hours on July 30, including the offering of a hybrid option Oct. 5 depending on the COVID-19 situation, were backtracked during a follow-up action meeting on Aug. 20.
It was unanimously decided that fully-remote learning will extend through the end of the second marking period, which ends on Friday, Jan. 29. At that point, a hybrid option (two days of in-person learning) may be offered if conditions are considered safe.
Almost 200 staff members have been furloughed, including bus drivers, transportation aides, teacher aides, management assistants and other positions.
For students with IEPs (Individualized Education Programs), it was previously agreed that they could opt for in-person instruction in September, while the rest of the student body was remote. The board voted Aug. 20 to not open buildings for specialized learners, and instead meet their needs using specially designed instruction in their home environment. An in-person option would be granted only when determined necessary by an individual child’s team of professionals.
“The recommendation this evening is a hardship on many families, and we recognize that,” said Superintendent Dr. William Gretzula.
According to him, there were several reasons for these changes. While the COVID-19 situation in Bucks County is trending in a better direction, the area – as well as surrounding counties where district staff live and families work – still has positive cases. Gretzula said one case can become five cases fairly quickly in a school environment, and he doesn’t want there to be an emergency closure after one month.
Extending virtual learning through January gives parents more scheduling stability than if the board took action on a month-to-month basis, said Gretzula. It also gives the board and administration extra time to create a more robust hybrid option, which involves the tedious task of matching teachers and students.
Remote instruction will be largely synchronous, with opportunities for live instruction in virtual classrooms each day. Gretzula said the goal is to create an environment that mimics the traditional classroom setting as closely as possible. There will also be some independent work, such as homework and projects. Assessments and deadlines will hold students accountable.
If a student is absent because of an illness or inability to connect to the internet, lectures will be pre-recorded and uploaded to Canvas (secondary) or Google Classroom (elementary). More than 700 teachers received extensive training on the platforms, and 24/7 Canvas support was purchased by the administration.
Schedules will include time for virtual office hours, short breaks and lunch. For hands-on courses, such as biology and chemistry, teachers will conduct demonstrations to be viewed at home by students.
Chromebooks will be provided to all students, though families who already have a device are asked to forego a district-issued one. Those who lack access to the internet should contact a school counselor or administrator for assistance. A Chromebook swapping station will be set up every day school is in session to ensure students have a working device.
Similar to the spring, food will be distributed to families in need. Gretzula said the district is planning to have early morning and afterschool pickups so that synchronous learning is not interrupted. He also hopes to offer pickups only two days a week and provide more food so that families don’t need to come every day.
Regarding childcare, Pennsbury buildings will not be open for those services.
Board member Debbie Wachspress asked what virtual learning will look like for kindergarteners, whose parents have concerns about their child’s first educational experience being in front of a screen. Michele Spack, director of elementary education, said teachers will send out weekly/biweekly activity boxes for children to work on independently. There will be “getting to know you” activities, as well as projects, such as cutting and pasting, to help improve motor skills. Opportunities for Google Meet sessions will be available throughout the day.
“We’ll make sure our students feel acclimated even in that virtual world,” said Spack.
Additionally, a revised athletic health and safety plan was approved, allowing low-risk varsity sports like golf, tennis and cross country to practice and compete during “Phase 3,” which runs through Sept. 18. The plan will be reviewed and revised monthly as more data becomes available.
In their final remarks, board members said they understand many Pennsbury families are upset at the decisions made. But there was no way to make everybody happy.
“We need to be realistic and stop looking for the perfect solution in this imperfect world,” said board president TR Kannan.
“This has been a long summer,” added board member Christian Schwartz. “There’s no one-size-fits-all plan. But I think now we can all take a deep breath and look forward to getting the best virtual experience for our students as we can. Everybody has a focus now.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org