Cyndie Bowman, a member of the Neshaminy school board, understands firsthand the frustration of parents and students struggling with hybrid learning.
“I don’t want you to think we don’t hear you. I have two kids that are doing online learning. One is doing great, one is failing miserably. So, I get it. I’m trying to teach from my home office and trying to fight with my son to get assignments done. I understand all sides,” she said during the board meeting on Oct. 27. “I’m a teacher, I’m a board member, I’m a mom of a Neshaminy student.”
Bowman wants her kids back in the classroom full-time. She wants those wheels to be set in motion, but in the safest way possible for students and staff.
“It has to be done with purpose and it has to be strategic,” she said.
During the meeting, the wheels started to slowly turn to an “all-in” direction. Superintendent Dr. Rob McGee recommended a target date of Monday, Nov. 30 to bring grades K-4 back to the classroom Monday through Thursday, with remote, synchronous learning scheduled for Friday mornings.
This would give students two additional days of in-person instruction, and give teachers time on Friday afternoons to prepare their classrooms for an eventual five-day return. Families who feel uncomfortable with this and wish to have their child learn 100 percent remotely can choose that option, and opt in to in-person learning if they change their mind at any point.
The board decided to delay voting on the plan until its next meeting on Nov. 10. Depending on what is approved, the board can revisit the plan again at its Nov. 24 meeting and make adjustments as needed based on the ever-changing COVID-19 situation.
Originally, the administration proposed offering an all-in option (Plan A) on Nov. 2 for grades K-12. However, cases are beginning to increase in Bucks County, which remains in a “moderate” level of transmission as outlined by the state Department of Health.
“We’re moving back inside as a society, but the uncertainty of November, December, January is still there,” said McGee. “It’s a balance. It’s a tightrope between making sure students are safe, making sure staff is safe, and making sure we can continue to staff our buildings and our classrooms.”
So, why is elementary the only level being considered at this time? According to McGee, younger students are having more difficulty with remote learning; smaller class sizes allow 6 feet of distancing between desks; and this age group is less likely to contract COVID-19. Since the pandemic began, Bucks County reported 160 cases in residents 10 and under.
If middle and high schoolers were to attend in-person four days, McGee said desks could be separated by only 3 feet or less. The administration also has to resolve logistical issues in the hallways, at lunch and during dismissal. His recommendation for this level is expected to come in January or sooner, assuming the district is successful in getting the elementary kids back Nov. 30.
When the district is notified that a student or employee tested positive for COVID-19, which was recently the case at Neshaminy High School, the administration conducts preliminary contact tracing in order to speed up the process when it eventually goes to the Bucks County Department of Health. Principals identify close contacts based on seating charts and extracurricular activities, and that information is sent to Health Director Dr. David Damsker and his associates.
McGee added that quarantine action will most often not be taken because of health and safety measures in place, including desks spaced by 6 feet. If secondary students were brought back for four days, and desks were separated by 3 feet, more people would be considered “close contacts” and would therefore need to quarantine.
“Our present setup leads to a minimum number of exclusions from school when somebody is positive,” he said.
When recently surveyed, 35 percent of parents said they’re “extremely comfortable” with an all-in model, 26 percent said they’re “uncomfortable,” and the rest were in between. If moved from hybrid, 73 percent of families currently enrolled in that schedule said they’d prefer an all-in option, while 20 percent want full remote.
Student Jessica Brown, of Langhorne, shared with board members her rough hybrid experience. As someone with an IEP, she said it’s difficult to learn by herself.
“Sometimes when I’m on Zoom, it doesn’t work very well, so I have to teach myself the rest of the day,” she said.
Although Brown was excited to go back to school on her first in-person day on Oct. 5, it proved to be less than enjoyable.
“By the end of the day, I had a rapid heart rate. I was disappointed because I didn’t even get to see my friends behind the mask and I really just wanted to give them a hug,” she said. “My anxiety has gone up, and I have to see the school counselor every day.”
Board member Adam Kovitz stressed that he and his colleagues want all students to return full time as soon as possible. But he doesn’t want to push “too far, too fast, too soon.”
“There isn’t a single person on this stage that doesn’t want all of our kids back and in person. But we’re in uncharted territory. We’re moving forward in some cases faster than other schools in Lower Bucks, and we’re doing this to the best of our ability,” he said. “We have a delicate balancing act of making sure that we’re keeping our parents satisfied. We get the stress levels, we’re all experiencing it. We get that some students are struggling. We understand. But we want to make sure that things are safe.”
Visit neshaminy.org/neshaminy for updates.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org