Tentative reopening plans reviewed
The July 14 Saucon Valley School Board meeting centered on the same challenge that districts across the country are facing: What will school look like come fall?
Before the meeting, Superintendent Dr. Craig Butler held two virtual parent information meetings on Zoom July 13, one in the morning and the other in the evening, on their Summary Outline of the Health and Safety Plan. Butler indicated that the finalized version of the plan is anticipated to be approximately 60 pages.
The three-page summary, as well as results of a parent survey conducted in June, can be found on the Saucon Valley website attached to the meeting agenda.
Many faculty members, parents and other residents expressed concerns with the plan in the public comment portion of the meeting.
Katie Wechtler, a teacher at Southern Lehigh, spoke first. She inquired about the live-stream option (Option B for students under the proposed plan), asking if there would be student interaction with the teacher? She indicated that it would be a difficult, if not impossible, task for teachers to teach to an in-person group and a virtual group at the same time, calling it “a lot to handle all at once.”
She also asked if teachers were involved in the development of the plan, as she and others indicated that teachers have been left out of discussions on the plan since early June. She expressed concern over providing hands-on instruction and reteaching and extension opportunities with students restricted to their desks for entire class periods.
She also noted that Butler had stressed how important recess is and asked for some further details, such as whether students would be able to use recess equipment and how students might be disciplined when they don’t follow rules.
Bob Kachmar, a 22-year veteran Saucon teacher and his wife, Robyn Heppenheimer, a 25-year Saucon teacher, echoed Wechtler’s concerns.
“Teachers have not been involved in the process of developing the Health and Safety Plan since early June, and even then… it could be argued that they were not being heard. You can’t tout this plan as being developed by teacher input at this point,” Kachmar said.
He was also very critical of Option B, characterizing it as “not feasible or realistic in delivery.” He agreed with Wechtler in that it would be very difficult to simultaneously teach students in person and at home.
“At home is an entirely different audience that requires a different set of activities,” he said, saying the proposed plan will greatly dilute the experience of both groups. He said that trying to do both ensures that neither will be done well and that “the students at home would be on the outside looking in.” He asked why they wouldn’t design a learning experience structured to their entirely different learning environment.
“I haven’t heard of any other district that is going this route,”he said, adding he would like to see the district’s teachers brought back to the table.
Jim Colbert, an Instructional Technology teacher in the district and president of the Saucon Valley Educational Association, said that from June 23 teachers no longer had any input, and although it was conveyed to the public that they were on board, that’s not necessarily true. He also indicated that as the district is planning to start the year with two guidance counselors out on maternity leave, the social and emotional health of students should be of utmost importance.
Grant Geiger, a counselor at the high school, agreed and said that he was not told the district administration had not sought a substitute to cover his pregnant colleague’s position.
Colbert also expressed concern over potential spread of the virus, saying he doesn’t know why students won’t be expected to wear masks even though they’re keeping six feet apart.
“I hope we’re willing to pay closer attention to CDC guidelines and not necessarily a parent survey,” he said. He compared the situation to managing prior lice outbreaks and MRSA in the wrestling room, saying that as they “weren’t always easy, this will be much more difficult.”
Amber Krisukas, a teacher in the district who indicated that she is currently pregnant, was very concerned about her health, as well as those around her.
“Based on your barebones plan, I’m left with more questions than answers,” she said. “What happens when I get sick…?”
She said that since March, she has personally taken great precautions to avoid COVID, having her groceries delivered and avoiding public places as much as possible.
“Your plan is not thorough and doesn’t ensure anyone’s safety,” she said, airing her apprehension over relying on students’ and their parents’ judgment to self-quarantine and not come to school if they feel unwell.
Avia Weber, a rising senior in the district, said teachers are the ones who know the students better than anyone in this district. She expressed concern about plans for the virtual component as it related to younger students.
“As an AP [Advanced Placement] and Honors student, I cannot imagine sitting in front of a computer for eight hours,” she said. “I don’t know how an 8-year-old can do that if a 16-year-old can’t.”
Angie McFetridge, a district parent, also wasn’t sold on the reopening plan, as she put it. She said her biggest point of contention was on how to avoid a larger outbreak if students start testing positive for COVID-19.
“Opening without a plan to test is just irresponsible at this point,” she said. “Relying on parents to not send their children to school sick is not reliable.”
She also characterized the cleaning and hygiene plans as “too vague,” observing that there is “no clear-cut plan for students to wash their hands before lunch,” for example.
Another district parent, Carrie Fluke, spoke representing a group of concerned parents wondering how elimination of lockers will work regarding students’ textbooks.
“It’s like a 50-pound knapsack” students often carry around, even with lockers, she said.
David Lloyd, a district math teacher, said the plan doesn’t sound bad, but it sounds “rushed.
“It sounds like we’re building an airplane while it’s already in the air,” he said. “As a teacher, I am going to have 20 or more students in my class. They will be unmasked – pretty much all day long. And I, as a teacher, am at least being considered to only wear a shield. That is unacceptable.”
He said the plan needs more details.
“I would implore you to not vote on any sort of action tonight. Take your time. Get the teachers involved, get the community involved.”
Superintendent Butler then gave a presentation, starting with the June parent survey results. As stated earlier, both the survey results and the plan summary can be found on the district’s website.
In the survey, 53.6 percent of district parents indicated that they can provide transportation to and from school; 34.5 percent said they cannot provide transportation either way; 92.9 percent said they will not need Internet access assistance at home in the event of virtual learning; but 13.6 percent said they anticipate requiring assistance in training to learn some of the online learning platforms.
Only 13.1 percent of district parents said they are not comfortable sending their child back to school under CDC guidelines, although this survey was conducted before the recent spike in cases in Pennsylvania.
Butler then presented the Summary Outline of the Health and Safety Plan and stressed that it is a summary, and the full and complete plan will be shared in the very near future.
“I accept and take full ownership of this plan,” he said, addressing teachers’ criticisms.“Yes we have not met with the (teacher) work group since the middle of June; however, we considered aspects of that group’s work very much so. (In a group) you don’t always agree on aspects of your discussion.”
He reminded the board that the plan will be further developed over the next several weeks.
In the plan, students are given two options: Option A and Option B. In Option A, students are physically present in classrooms for full five-day weeks. Students must wear masks to school, but can remove them if they are at their workstations and maintaining six feet of physical distance from one another.
“I am proud to say that in classrooms, we can maintain that six-foot distancing standard,” Butler said.
According to the PA Department of Health, a face-shield can be “as safe” as a mask. Shields, Butler said, may be better worn for instruction so students can see words being formed and facial expressions, although if a faculty member chooses to wear a mask, “that’s fine.”
Option B allows students to participate in home-based, online instruction. In response to some criticism that students would simply be watching and not engaging with their teachers, Butler said, “This is not a ‘live feed,’ per se. This is real time interaction.”
He indicated that this option is primarily meant for parents who have students who are immunocompromised, uncomfortable with sending their children back or have other nuanced situations.
Butler said that based on feedback he’s received, he believes Option A will be the overwhelmingly more popular choice.
“I am convinced that the (technological) tools that teachers have been and will be trained on will be effective,” he said. “If our parents choose online instruction, we will do our very best to connect our students into the classroom every day and in every period.”
He also described what it might look like if the area returns to ‘red’ under Governor Wolf’s orders in the future, as all students will be in an all-virtual setting. Teachers will be pushing out instruction on a daily basis using all platforms, Butler said, and essential faculty and staff will be in buildings if allowable.
He also indicated that if the governor were to allow it, some small groups of at-risk and identified students may be brought in for in-person instruction.
In the event of a positive COVID case and/or symptoms, the student or staff member will be removed from the school environment for a minimum of 14 days, Butler indicated. According to the plan, a doctor’s release, no evidence of an elevated temperature or COVID symptoms, and two negative tests will be required to return.
All parents, students and/or staff members affected will be contacted to make them aware of the positive test and contact tracing shall be enacted. There will be increased vigilance in the affected areas monitoring signs and symptoms and increased cleaning, hygiene and sanitation in the affected areas. If determined necessary, all affected individuals will be quarantined and placed on online instruction.
Classrooms doors will be propped open to reduce touches per day. Entry and exit doors will be cleaned throughout the day and some custodians will be moved from evening to day shift for higher frequency daytime cleaning.
Drinking fountains will be turned off, and students will be encouraged to bring their personal drink bottles. Towels will be provided in bathrooms as an option to the air dryer. There will be a bucket of wipes and a bottle of sanitizer in every classroom and protective suits and sneeze guards have been ordered and will be available.
Regarding busing, plans are for allowing one student per seat (unless students cohabitate), with assigned seating. Masks will also be required on buses and will be provided to students who forget or lose their mask. Buses will be cleaned twice daily, after the morning run and the afternoon run.
Middle and high school lunch procedures will be heavily monitored, Butler said, with marked spots on the floor for social distancing and marked seating at tables for physical distancing and staggered seating.
Students will eat in the cafeteria, adjacent hallways and other large group areas to achieve social distancing. Students will be instructed to wear masks when not eating, and lunch paraprofessionals will assist with additional cleaning. Elementary students will eat in their classroom utilizing menu pre-orders.
Board President Dr. Shamim Pakzad indicated during later discussion that this plan does not reflect CDC guidelines as far as he understood, in which students are instructed to eat lunch in their classrooms. He mentioned a pediatrician friend who has two children in the district as describing a lunch room as a “bar without alcohol.”
“This is one glaring violation of the guidelines,” he said.
Butler went on to indicate that physical distancing will be enforced in hallways and other high traffic areas during arrival and dismissal, in classrooms, during recess, gym, music, and other potentially large gathering areas (optional environments available to any student/family uncomfortable with this arrangement).
He said there will be no daily pre-screening for fevers at the school, and it is the responsibility of the students, faculty and staff to self-monitor body temperatures at home prior to coming to school. Visitors will also be restricted to those providing service to students and staff. Meetings with parents will be accomplished virtually.
“In reiteration, this is a summary,” Butler said, indicating that the full and complete safety plan is very near completion at this point.
“It is voluminous in nature,” he said, and very detailed.
Board member Sandra Miller asked if the plan will be posted. Butler said it would be once it is “tidied-up,” sometime early in the week of July 19. He went on to say that at the July 28 meeting, he’d present the complete state.
Butler said he wants to conduct another meeting with parents, faculty and the community prior to official approval of the plan.
District solicitor Mark Fitzgerald noted that he anticipates further actions or approvals in light of new guidance from the state department of health between now and then and board member Shawn Welch agreed that it is “more of a ‘living plan,’ (and) subject to change.”
The summary was ultimately approved by an 8-1 vote, with Edward Andres voting ‘no,’ as he and other board members who ultimately voted ‘yes’ took issue with an amendment to the plan presented by Pakzad which effectively bound the plan to CDC guidelines.
Andres, Shawn Welch, Michael Karabin and others raised concerns that there have been competing sources of “official” guidance released by the CDC, state and local health officials. When there are discrepancies, the administration should not be bound to choose one over the other.
After much debate, several members who voted ‘no’ on Pakzad’s amendment approved the plan as proposed with the amendment attached.
Lastly, the board discussed the future of their meetings and what they might look like going forward.
There has been a push to return to in-person meetings not just in Saucon Valley but in many local districts. The point has been raised that if school boards are willing to vote to send faculty, staff and students back to school, they should be willing to return meetings to an in-person, if somewhat modified, format. Board member Bryan Eichfeld pointed out, however, that many believe that there is value in having a virtual component to the meetings.
“I’ve always been very in favor of opening things up to the public,” Eichfeld said, but agreed that meetings are more effective when held in-person.
“As this thing winds down, assuming it eventually does,” he said, “the format can be revisited in the future. “
Board member Tracy Magnotta said she had suggested having a virtual component to meetings approximately a year ago and asked the board to give flexibility for people who travel for work and have conflicts and childcare issues.
Board Vice President Susan Baxter encouraged members of the public who wish to participate to show up in person. Currently, the meetings are broadcast on YouTube, which allows remote viewers to watch live, but provides no opportunity for viewers to participate.
All board members were in favor of returning to a physical component with hope for a hybrid model, as board technology director Michael Hanssen indicated that it would be possible, although he said that having it totally ready by the next meeting July 28 may not be feasible.
Ultimately, the board agreed to revisit the topic.
Editor’s note: This is a rather long story, but it is our feeling that the public needs to know the care being taken in preparing to reopen schools.