As school boards across the Lower Bucks County region debate the pros and cons of virtual, hybrid and full in-person learning during COVID-19, four- and five-hour meetings that stretch until midnight have become the exhausting norm.
However, on the evening on Monday, Oct. 19, Bristol Township School District Superintendent Melanie Gehrens was not messing around.
In just over two hours, she provided brief, oftentimes one-word answers to dozens of parent questions, and presented to the board a hybrid plan that would only bring back K-3 students in “black” and “gold” cohorts next month (grades K and 3 on Nov. 9; grades 1 and 2 on Nov. 16). This was ultimately shot down by six out of nine board members in a rapidfire vote.
Unless a special meeting is called, there will be no further board action until the next meeting on Monday, Nov. 16. Students, aside from special learners who have already returned to the buildings, will continue to follow the fully-remote schedule in the meantime.
While creating the plan, Gehrens said “all considerations were taken in,” including guidance from the local and state departments of health, state Department of Education, and other public health organizations. The reasoning behind the board’s vote was not thoroughly discussed.
Since a decision probably won’t be made until next month, it’s likely a hybrid offering will be implemented at the end of the marking period in January. However, the board said it could be sooner depending on local COVID-19 numbers. It was recently reported by the Bucks County Health Department that new cases are averaging 38 per day (a slight increase, though a better statistic than what’s being seen statewide) and hospitalizations remain very low.
When students do return to the classroom, they can expect to be broken up into two cohorts – “black” and “gold.” The “black” group will attend in-person classes on Monday and Thursday; the “gold” group on Tuesday and Friday; and all will learn virtually from home on Wednesday, as well as the two days they’re not in the classroom. For special-needs students already in the buildings, they’ll attend in-person for synchronous learning on Wednesday morning, and will then be bused home for asynchronous, remote learning in the afternoon.
According to Karen Snedecker, elementary curriculum supervisor, the younger students will be able to interact with their entire class, whether they’re in the classroom or at home. Teachers will incorporate small group instruction, pairing up students in the “black” cohort with those in “gold” through the use of technology.
“All students will be receiving at least some live instruction, whole group, small group and live collaborating with their peers,” said Snedecker.
At the middle school level, Franklin D. Roosevelt principal Kevin Boles stressed there will be some differences in scheduling between FDR and Neil A. Armstrong. Due to available space in the cafeteria, FDR will have five lunch periods (12 class periods total), and Armstrong will have four lunches (11 class periods total). He added that on their remote days, students will be completing mostly assigned, asynchronous work so that teachers can give undivided attention to the cohort in the classroom. Harry S. Truman High School will follow a similar format.
Desks in the classrooms will be separated by 6 feet, students and staff will be required to wear masks at all times while at school, and classrooms will be thoroughly cleaned and ionized each night. Seating charts will be required for contact tracing. In the hallway, social distancing markers will be placed on the floor and hand sanitizer stations will be installed at strategic locations.
Regarding meals, grab-and-go breakfasts will be available for students to eat in the classroom. In the cafeteria for lunch, students will have assigned, front-facing seating at desks placed 6 feet apart. For students who don’t wish to bring their own lunch, pre-served meals will be provided. All students are eligible for free breakfast and lunch until the end of the school year. Cafeterias will be cleaned after each lunch period.
On school buses, students will load from the back to front, and unload from front to back. Masks will be required for students and drivers, and buses will be cleaned and ionized each day.
Before sending their children to school, parents will be asked to complete a symptom check at home. Additional screenings will be done by school nurses on a daily basis. Symptomatic students should be kept home, and parents should inform the school if their child has traveled to a high-risk state. If a student becomes ill while at school, the nurse’s office has been retrofitted to accommodate this situation, with isolation rooms and Plexiglas.
At the end of the presentation, Gehrens included a slide of answers to commonly asked questions: Siblings will be in the same cohort; parents seeking special accommodations for an IEP or 504 should contact the special education office; teachers will be asked to screen themselves daily; students should bring their Chromebook on in-person days; lockers will not be used; students who cannot comply with the mask order will not be allowed to attend in-person instruction, with the exception of documented medical conditions; and, if a child will not be in school (virtually or in-person), their absence should be reported to the school office.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, parents were divided – while some want their children to return to the classroom, others are worried about the health risks. But many seemed to be in agreement of Gehrens’ hostile tone and “huffing” while answering questions. Parents were reprimanded for asking repeat questions, but, with everyone submitting comments simultaneously, it was impossible to know what was already asked. It was suggested that a parent survey be sent out before the Nov. 16 meeting, which will allow the board and administration to condense questions of the same topic.
Visit bristoltwpsd.org/ for updates.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com