A large group of Pennsbury parents are fed up.
As they watch Council Rock students return to classes in a hybrid model, and Bensalem and other neighboring districts consider an in-person option this fall, their frustration continues to mount. The Pennsbury school board previously voted to extend fully-remote learning through the end of the second marking period, which ends on Friday, Jan. 29.
Instead of simply sitting back and waiting for this to happen, these parents are taking matters into their own hands.
Diana Donnelly, a resident of the Pennsbury district, launched the Facebook group ReOpen Pennsbury Schools on Sept. 17. Since its inception, the page has amassed 1,400 members and counting. Though her own children are in private schools and she has “no dog in this fight,” she heard constant complaints from her Pennsbury parent friends about the struggles of online learning. Donnelly wanted to create a safe space where they could voice their concerns and understand that they’re not alone in wanting the schools to reopen.
The page has become a support system for many, with parents sharing stories (and memes to lighten the mood) of how remote learning is impacting both them and their children. For example, Casey Maule shared how all four of her kids keep losing internet connection.
“I have kids in tears, ones ready to punch walls and another wanting to give up for the day,” she said. “This is way too stressful for these poor kids! My son spent the last hour writing a report only to lose internet connection and it all be lost.”
Vicki Jinx Bullitt stressed that wanting her kids back in school isn’t about getting “me time.”
“It’s about what’s best for my kids and what my kids need,” she said. “My 8-year-old is frustrated, stressed and depressed. She should not have to experience any of the above at 8-years-old. We were promised a robust virtual model. We got 10-minute live sessions five times a day, and Google Docs. This is not education.”
Parents of special-needs children and students with an IEP seem to be especially struggling with the online format.
“Today, I just wanna crawl into a hole and cry,” said Ann Zembrzuski Lipcsey, mother of an autistic child. “This is not education. This is also not the relationship that I want to have with my child. I am his mom and that’s the job I want. What makes this harder is that I’m a single mom trying to keep my job and trying to do work while I’m teaching him school. This is wrong on so many levels. He is literally learning nothing.”
On Friday, Sept. 25, the group organized a rally outside of the Administration Building in Levittown. About 100 parents and students alike convened at 10 a.m., and emotions ran high as attendees pleaded with the board to get kids back in the classroom.
Kimberly Smith Pio reflected on how she was open to give virtual learning a shot. Anything had to be better than the “nightmare” that was offered at the end of the previous school year. But it’s not working.
“You try your best but then you feel like you’re failing. I feel like everyday I wake up and say I’m gonna be better, I’m gonna be more patient, and I’m not,” she said, explaining how her frustration is causing her children to become short-tempered. “You can’t pour from an empty cup, and I feel like my cup’s empty. I’m not doing my kids any service by continuing their education this way.”
Doug Espenlaub raised the point that fitness facilities like the Newtown Athletic Club are open, with no major spikes in COVID-19 cases. They implemented extensive health and safety measures approved by the CDC, so why can’t Pennsbury do the same? Espenlaub said his 85-year-old father goes to the gym three times a week and has had no issues.
“He feels safe because of the precautions that they’re putting into place,” he said. “I think that the school board needs to look at that, look at different avenues of how to sanitize and keep the environment safe for the kids, staff and teachers.”
Several brave students took the microphone, including a seventh-grader from Charles Boehm Middle School.
“We are tired of sitting at a computer screen for six hours a day. It is tiring,” she said. “We are sitting there stressed out because sometimes network or connection issues happen.”
A group of Pennsbury High School students talked about the irony of how teens are constantly told to have less screen time, yet they’re now required to stare at a screen all day.
According to Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker, COVID-19 infections remain steadily low in the area, averaging about 34 new cases daily. Hospitalizations also remain low.
“We are seeing every day now that our younger and healthier populations are not getting seriously ill from this virus, which is terrific news,” Damsker said.
Additionally, a study by WalletHub ranked Pennsylvania among the top three states that have the ability to safely reopen schools.
Taking all of this into consideration, Pennsbury board president TR Kannan said in a recent letter to families that “discussions are underway to prepare a plan for a phased reopening of schools earlier than scheduled. Initially, we will focus on specific specialized learning populations across the district, followed by our youngest learners.”
Until this takes place, the ReOpen Pennsbury group will continue its mission no matter what. Though founder Donnelly stepped down as administrator due to being physically threatened for her initiative, four new moderators have been named. Learn more about the group and request to join at facebook.com/groups/349116989835370.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org