Many parents of elementary students were not pleased, to say the least, when the Council Rock school board backtracked a vote that would offer a four-day in-person option beginning Dec. 14.
The decision was made at the board’s Dec. 3 meeting. But after a drastic rise in COVID-19 cases both locally and nationally, with Bucks County averaging close to 500 new infections daily, board members determined it needed to be revisited on the Dec. 10 agenda.
In a vote of 6-3, a four-day option for elementary students was approved to begin Monday, Jan. 11, with Wednesdays continuing to be a full day of virtual learning.
According to superintendent Dr. Robert Fraser, the administration recommended four days for the younger kids instead of five to get them warmed up to the idea of wearing a face mask for more than two hybrid days, which is the schedule they’re currently on.
As for students at the secondary level, the board voted 8-1 to set Feb. 1 (the first day of the second semester) as a target date to offer a five-day in-person option. Wednesdays will be added to the hybrid rotation beginning Jan. 13, allowing students to attend school in-class three days every other week. Denise Brooks was the single “no” vote.
Fraser made it known that this return makes him uncomfortable. He said the COVID situation continues to worsen, and most of the secondary schools don’t have the capacity to separate students by 6 feet in the classroom.
“At Holland Middle School, only 13 percent of our classrooms will be able to provide the social distancing of 6 feet,” Fraser said. “I’m of the mindset that we should not be setting anything more than a target date this evening and frankly, with where the virus numbers are, I wouldn’t even recommend the board do that. But because I was asked to come up with a date, we’ve come up with a date of Feb. 1.”
Board member Michael Thorwart, who was all for a Dec. 14 elementary start, expressed his wish that students get back in the classroom full-time as soon as possible. He reminded his colleagues that it’s soon going to be a year since they’ve had a normal education.
“I consider it a failure if we don’t go back to school for these kids,” he said.
Brooks, on the other hand, wants to err on the side of caution like the superintendent.
“We can all agree that schools are the best place for students, but nothing in any of the medical recommendations states that specifically means five days in school. The message is, don’t close schools unless absolutely necessary and follow safety guidelines,” Brooks said, adding that hybrid is the “ideal compromise.”
She went on to reprimand board members who asked Fraser to recommend a specific start date.
“Is certainty in the midst of the worst public health threat our country has ever experienced realistic?” she asked.
Based on the public comment portion of the meeting, Council Rock parents remain divided. While some said Fraser doesn’t have students’ best interests in mind by not offering a five-day option sooner, others pleaded for a delay until the rise in cases slows.
In addition to the worsening COVID-19 situation, Fraser wanted to delay full-time in-person instruction until more staff could be hired. Director of human resources Christine Taylor presented strategies to acquire more staff, which include onboarding secondary level teachers on Jan. 4. The market, she said, is extremely competitive right now, so educators will be more likely to come to Council Rock if they don’t have to wait until February to begin working.
The board unanimously approved the hiring of extra staff.
With the final holidays of 2020 right around the corner, board member Andy Block pleaded with the community to take Gov. Tom Wolf’s mitigation orders seriously, as frustrating as they may be.
“If everybody does what we should be doing through the holidays, then we should see some type of change coming into the new year,” he said. “That’ll give us as a school district the chance that we need to staff the building and get the kids back in.”
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Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com