Despite COVID-19 rapidly spreading again both nationally and locally, with Bucks County averaging about 118 new cases daily – a 79 percent increase from the end of October – students of Council Rock will soon have the option to attend class in-person five days a week.
During the school board’s meeting on Thursday, Nov. 5, it was approved in a vote of 7-2 that a five-day schedule will be offered to grades K-6 beginning Monday, Dec. 14, and to grades 7-12 on Monday, Jan. 4.
If families feel uncomfortable with an “all-in” option, they must select the fully remote alternative. The cohorted hybrid plan, which has allowed students to learn in the classroom two days a week since the end of September, will be eliminated. This, according to Superintendent Dr. Robert Fraser, is due to lack of staff and his unwillingness to have teachers prepare three separate lesson plans.
“I don’t think that’s fair to them,” Fraser said. “It concerns me greatly. It’s already a struggle to teach to the number of students that we have in the classroom and the students on the screen.”
If Council Rock was to offer virtual, five-day and hybrid options, Fraser estimated it would require a minimum of nine additional teachers at a cost of $367,000.
A number of board members were pleased with the expedited start date. Originally, Fraser proposed a February 2021 “all-in” return, but adjusted based on board and public feedback. Results from a district survey stated that 4,000 families want their children to be in the buildings full-time, over 3,000 said they prefer hybrid, and almost 2,000 selected all-virtual.
But not all board members were on board. Denise Brooks pointed out that most local school districts are delaying a five-day start because of the rise in cases, and aren’t being as aggressive. She said doing away with hybrid would force students currently enrolled in that schedule into total isolation if they and their parents are uncomfortable with “all-in.” Brooks added that a vote for five-day “only gives one group what they want.”
Based on metrics provided by the state Department of Health, Bucks County is currently in the “substantial” level of COVID-19 transmission. The recommendation in this stage is for all learning to be conducted virtually. The county entered this phase after months of remaining in the “moderate” level, for which the state recommends virtual or hybrid learning. Full in-person is only recommended once a “low” level of community transmission is achieved, which is less than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day period, and a less than 5 percent positivity rate over that same time frame.
However, Bucks County Health Department Director Dr. David Damsker recently announced that no in-school spread has been reported in reopened districts, and urged districts to not revert to all-virtual instruction. He also stated that children are “safer in the classroom,” where restrictions are in place, than out playing with friends in the neighborhood.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction in every measure,” countered Brooks, who expressed how taking away hybrid is “exceedingly unfortunate.”
Mark Byelich, on the other hand, said the decision should be more so based on students’ needs rather than state-issued metrics. The board continues to receive hourly feedback from parents, who explain in detail how their children are depressed and struggling, even in the hybrid model. He’s also not concerned about a major school outbreak.
“The district knows how to handle cases,” he said.
When The Times went to print, there had been 19 positive cases at Council Rock North over the last 10 days, which resulted in the closure of the school for four days. In-person instruction is slated to resume on Thursday, Nov. 19. This is the second time the school has ceased in-class operations due to COVID-19 since hybrid launched in September.
It was clear during the public comment portion of the meeting that no matter the board’s decision, it’s impossible to please everybody. While some parents pleaded for the board to keep the hybrid option, stating an “all-in” environment is too dangerous, others demanded a full in-person education. One individual wrote to Fraser, “You have proven yourself to be a poor leader and a disgrace to the Department of Education,” and called for him to be fired.
Regarding the Health & Safety Plan, the administration and school principals are working on ways to host in-person meetings as soon as possible for afterschool clubs and activities, which have been virtual so far this year. Additionally, Fraser said communication between staff and the district’s new custodial provider ABM is being streamlined, and teachers can provide direct feedback on issues.
The next school board meeting is set for Thursday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m. Visit crsd.org/ for updates.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org