Despite the start of the school year being mere days away, parents continued to voice a myriad of concerns during the virtual Bensalem Township school board meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 26.
College readiness for seniors and a need for an enhanced digital communication system were among topics submitted for public comment. But the hot-button issue was the fact that remote learning, which began Tuesday, Sept. 8, includes no live lectures.
One father described the format as “mind-blowing,” while a mother said her child will be at a disadvantage compared to students in the Neshaminy and Pennsbury districts, both of which are incorporating synchronous education. She added that elementary-aged children need to ask questions in real time, not during limited virtual office hours, and teachers will have to start from scratch getting to know their class when in-person lessons resume.
Board member Rachel Fingles explained the reasoning behind the decision, which she said was made by the administration, not voted upon by the school board.
“You’ve got a lot of kids who can tune in when the lessons occur, and they can get on there and they can participate. But the problem becomes, what happens to the children who can’t? The children who can’t join the lesson don’t get an opportunity to ask the same questions,” Fingles said. “And if they miss the lesson, they don’t catch up. We’re already going to have a big equity problem because so many children are going to be struggling to learn virtually.”
Fingles went on to say that, if there were synchronous components, every child in the district would suffer in the end.
“There’s going to be such inequity in our classrooms when we return that getting everybody on the same page or close enough together is going to be really difficult,” she said. “We end up disenfranchising a lot of learners. I don’t love the idea of not having synchronous instruction. As a parent, I’m responsible for my child’s education, even in these ridiculous circumstances. But as a school board member, I also have an obligation to think about all of the other kids who don’t have parents that are engaged.”
After the public comment portion of the meeting, Geoff Per, director of athletics and activities, presented the revised “Return to Play” health and safety plan, which was approved unanimously by the board.
The PIAA board of directors voted on Friday, Aug. 21, to permit fall sports to begin Monday, Aug. 24, based on local school decisions. Per said Bensalem is one of 24 schools in the Suburban One League, which split fall sports into three categories: low-risk (golf, tennis), moderate-risk (soccer, cross country, hockey and volleyball) and high-risk (football).
According to the plan, and depending on the ever-changing COVID-19 situation, competition start dates for each sport are Sept. 3 for golf; Sept. 8 for tennis; Sept. 21 for cross country, field hockey, volleyball and boys’ and girls’ soccer; and Oct. 2 for football, cheerleading and band.
Safety measures in the plan include: Students and staff are required to undergo a health screening prior to any practice/event; social distancing must be implemented; each team/activity must receive approval from facilities/Athletic Department before starting practices/meetings; coaches and advisers must wear masks at all times, are responsible for cleaning all equipment before leaving and must undergo COVID-19 training; transportation will be provided only for away competitions, not day-to-day workouts and meetings; and state Department of Health guidelines for spectators will be followed (250 people outside, 50 inside).
Regarding the marching band, students will wear masks upon arrival and departure, and when they’re not playing an instrument. The band will practice outside (when feasible) to achieve optimal airflow for 30-minute segments, with 5-minute breaks in between. Indoor practices will be limited to 30 minutes, and all locations must be sanitized before returning.
The only issue board members saw with the plan was a clause that prohibited volunteers from assisting with sports and activities. Stephanie Ferrandez brought up the robotics club, which is primarily run by volunteers, as an example.
“How can that function?,” she asked. “Even though we’re going full virtual, those opportunities, some of them may be possible. We need to give some guidance.”
Although Ferrandez proposed an amendment to change the wording of the clause and allow volunteers on site if they’re crucial to an activity’s operations, it was shot down by the rest of the board, which agreed to revisit the plan at a later date.
“Give us a couple of weeks to figure it out because we’re still talking about it,” said Fingles. “I know everybody’s tired of waiting. I am, too. I have a fourth-grader who would love to be in choir this year. We need to make sure that it’s going to be possible. Hang tight, please.”
Also during the meeting, the board voted to furlough staff whose services can’t be provided in a virtual setting. This included 23 transportation employees, 100 education support staff and 17 food services employees.
Additionally, the board voted to develop an anti-racist school climate and form a diversity and inclusion committee. The committee would look at school policies to address any racism that may exist; hold focus groups with current students from underrepresented groups; and create an employee training program centered on diversity, equity and inclusion.
“It’s sad to me that we even have to have a resolution addressing this. But those are the times that we’re living in,” said board member Vanessa Woods, who was the brains behind the initiative. “It’s my hope that as leaders at Bensalem, we’re able to take a different approach, one that is truly inclusive and enriched in diversity, one that is not equal but equitable. It’s our duty as board members to make sure that all staff, all students, all people who walk through our buildings are treated with dignity and respect.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org