The latest meeting of the Pennsbury school board was once again a lengthy rollercoaster, complete with confusing discussion surrounding multiple learning models, and the presentation of a change.org petition signed by 500-plus parents calling for the immediate removal of Superintendent Dr. William Gretzula.
In the end, after about four hours, parents who have been rallying to get their children back in the classroom came out somewhat victorious – the board approved the first two phases of a three-phase plan. Board member Debbie Wachspress was absent from the meeting and vote.
Students in grades PreK-2 will return for an A/B hybrid model beginning Nov. 12, while grades 3-8 will do so Dec. 7. Group A will attend Monday and Tuesday, Group B on Wednesday and Thursday. All will learn synchronously from home on Friday, and both synchronously and asynchronously on their two remote days. For parents who feel uncomfortable having their children in school, 100 percent remote instruction will remain an option.
Gretzula said local and state data surrounding COVID-19, including percent-positivity and incidence rate per 100,000 residents, was taken into consideration when drafting the revised Continuity of Education plan. Bucks County remains in the “moderate” level of transmission, as reported by the state Department of Health.
“The data suggests we can open in some form of hybrid,” he said, adding that in order to have a full reopening with all students back at the same time, there needs to be less than 10 cases per 100,000 residents, and less than 5 percent positivity rate.
Originally, Pennsbury administration proposed that only grade 6 (along with grades 3-5) return on Dec. 7, giving students time to acclimate to their new education level. A hybrid model for grades 7 and 8 would have been offered on Jan. 4. However, based on feedback from a parent survey, which received almost 7,000 responses, 73 percent said they want in-person instruction as soon as possible. Board president TR Kannan and his colleagues requested that the administration expedite those dates.
Students in class will continue to utilize their Chromebooks so that live interaction with the remote cohort can take place. Desks will be separated by 6 feet, and lunch will be held in the classroom. Cleaning supplies and large quantities of PPE (including clear masks for paraprofessionals working with special learners, who have the option to attend in-person four days) have been purchased, and classrooms will be professionally cleaned each evening.
Discussion surrounding the elementary and middle schools went relatively smooth. However, the topic of phase three – how and when high schoolers will come back to the classroom – caused confusion and discord. Although the administration proposed a hybrid A/B start on Feb. 4 (the beginning of a new marking period), it also presented multiple other learning models, making it unclear to the board what they were actually voting on.
These alternatives, outlined by director of secondary education Theresa Ricci, included a “college model,” which would see Group A coming to class for two hours in the morning, Monday and Tuesday, and then learning from home asynchronously in the afternoon. The schedule would switch on Wednesday and Thursday with Group B, and all would learn synchronously from home on Friday. Virtual office hours would be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. each day.
An “out-of-the-box” option would keep classes 100 percent online, but offer time slots for virtual and in-person office hours daily. Due to space limitations, students would need to sign up in advance. Additionally, clubs would be able to meet twice a month, every other Friday.
As for the hybrid option, classes would be 75 minutes long, students would have an AA/BB schedule, and daily virtual office hours would be held beginning at 1:35 p.m.
When asked by the board which option would allow high schoolers to return to class prior to Feb. 4, Ricci and Gretzula did not give a clear-cut answer, stating each model has its own unique pros and cons. For example, if implemented in the middle of a marking period, the hybrid option would force some students to switch classes/teachers. On the other hand, the college model would include a large amount of asynchronous instruction (basically any time students aren’t in the classroom, aside from synchronous Fridays), which is something most families stated they do not want.
Board members had differing opinions. Josh Waldorf said a Feb. 4 hybrid start makes more sense than disrupting students’ current schedules. Christine Toy-Dragoni disagreed.
“I think there are a wide variety of issues with virtual that we’re hearing from parents,” she said. “I think Feb. 4 is too far out, especially when everyone in the district is going to be back.”
As it stands, the board will revisit the topic of high school instruction at its next meeting on Nov. 19, though it’s likely a special action meeting will be called sooner. The administration was asked to craft a singular model that can bring students back in December as safely, and with the least disruption to scheduling, as possible. Parents of high schoolers were slated to receive a survey on the type of learning they’d prefer for their teen.
During the public comment portion of the meeting, active “ReOpen Pennsbury Schools” member Tim Daly brought up a Right to Know request submitted by a local resident, which concerns a 16-page email sent by Gretzula to board members. While the contents of the email are unknown, Daly hinted it includes pertinent details on why Pennsbury is lagging behind other districts in reopening its buildings.
Daly also informed the board of the online petition to remove Gretzula from office ahead of his June retirement for “paralyzing the district,” which was signed by more than 500 individuals.
“I’ll take whatever arrows come my way,” responded Gretzula. “It’s part of the position.”
Check pennsburysd.org for updates.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org