Whitehall-Coplay school year plan includes 3 models
At a special Whitehall-Coplay School Board meeting, hosted July 22 virtually via Zoom, members approved the Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan with an 8-1 vote, with Tina Koren opposed.
The plan, available to view under Important Links at whitehallcoplay.org, is subject to modifications based on guidance from the Office of the Governor, Pennsylvania Department of Education and Pennsylvania Department of Health, upon the recommendation of the superintendent with input from the pandemic committee.
Whitehall-Coplay School District Superintendent Dr. Lorie Hackett said the plan includes traditional in-person, blended and online learning models. The plan also describes the health and safety protocols, such as wearing a face covering, social distancing, symptom prescreening procedures and cleaning and sanitizing guidelines.
“The plan that was developed was meant to be fluid, with options to give the administration the ability to adapt to the changing conditions to provide for student educational needs. The board is being asked tonight to vote on the overall plan, including all of the learning options and all of the health and safety protocols,” Hackett said.
More than 120 people watched the virtual meeting, and 100-plus questions from district families and community members poured in through the chat feature on Zoom.
Before the board voted on the plan, Koren expressed her concern that too many questions remained unaddressed and asked for a motion to table the vote until the district could provide parents with more answers. One point of contention was the district’s decision to conduct temperature checks only on students boarding buses, rather than at the door of the school.
Board member Patty Gaugler said the plan will be continuously changing and that it was important not to put off the vote.
“There’s always going to be questions we can’t answer,” Gaugler said.
The board agreed in order to postpone the vote, they would have to either hold another special meeting or wait until the next meeting, Aug. 10, which would mean putting the vote off until three weeks before the Aug. 31 start date for the 2020-21 school year.
Before a final decision can be made as to whether WCSD students will be returning for in-person, online or hybrid instruction, a second round of surveys, sent to parents July 24, must first be completed and reviewed. The survey asks families about learning model choices and transportation preferences.
Formal decisions based on survey responses will be made by school administration by Aug. 7 at the latest. Students and families will have until Aug. 17 to make their final decisions on their instructional preference and are asked to commit to their choice for the first marking period.
While face-to-face instruction is the preferred model for returning to school, it may not be feasible at the high school and middle school levels due to buildings not being large enough for all students to be present at once while maintaining social distancing requirements set forth by PDE.
Hackett said both the administrative and pandemic teams have explored various options, but they have run into problems, such as how to incorporate social-distancing guidelines during lunch periods. Following health and safety protocols would require extended lunch times, but that would prevent the district from providing students with the required 990 hours of instructional time per year.
The school day already has to be shortened by 15 minutes due to buses being rerouted to accommodate social distancing. According to Hackett, arrival times will remain the same, but dismissal will be 15 minutes earlier than before.
The new hours for Whitehall-Coplay Middle School will be from 7:28 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Whitehall High School is from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; and Gockley, Steckel and Zephyr elementary schools hours will be from 8:45 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Based on current calculations, Hackett said approximately 25-30 percent of WHS students and 15-20 percent of WCMS students would have to commit to virtual learning to maintain a safe environment for staff and students. If face-to-face instruction cannot be accommodated, it would require students to follow the blended model of two days of in-person and three days of online instruction.
Gockley, Steckel and Zephyr will be able to accommodate all students for the traditional school model without a significant reduction of class sizes, as long as students wear face coverings and stay between 3 and 6 feet apart, the distances required by PDE and the DOH when masks are worn. When students are able to stay more than 6 feet apart, they will be able to remove their masks.
Students who cannot wear masks for health reasons will be kept 6 feet away from mask wearers, and face shields remain an alternative for students uncomfortable with masks.
Mask breaks will occur in all classrooms, especially at the elementary levels. Half of the class will remain in the room, and the other half will move to another nearby area in the school and will be able to remove their masks for several minutes, while remaining 6 feet apart. Parents are required to provide the masks.
Social distancing during lunch at Gockley, Steckel and Zephyr will be possible by having students eat in the cafeterias, gymnasiums and other extra spaces. Some Zephyr students will have lunch in their classrooms, and the placement of students with food allergies will vary by building.
To limit exposure, children will remain in the same classrooms when possible, and visitors and volunteers will no longer be permitted in the building. The air-filtering systems are also being upgraded to allow more air flow in the classrooms.
WCSD administration is still working on finalizing the online model, called the Whitehall-Coplay Online Learning Program, and Hackett said it will be close to the experience of being in a regular classroom.
Unlike the impromptu virtual learning that children experienced during the last quarter of the 2019-20 school year, this version will allow students to participate in the class and, according to Hackett, will be “much more robust.” Teachers would instruct classes online while livestreaming; classes would include direct, interactive instruction; and students would follow a regular schedule as if they were physically in school.
Any cameras recording the lesson will be aimed at the teacher, not the class, to ensure privacy. Attendance will be monitored, and assignments will be graded the same as if it were a regular in-person class. Students who follow the online model will still be able to participate in sports and extracurricular activities.
If a student begins the year following the traditional model and ends up transferring into the virtual learning program, it is not yet certain whether they will remain with the same teachers. That will be dependent on how many students sign up for the online program.
If the schools close again due to rising numbers of COVID-19 cases, all students would switch to the Whitehall-Coplay Online Learning Program, the same program the students who opt for the virtual model will be using. Leveled classes, such as remedial, gifted and advanced placement, will remain available to online students. All classes will still be offered at WCMS and WHS.
According to WCSD Director of Special Education Brooke Clary, special education teachers and regular education teachers will partner to ensure students with Individualized Education Plans will have any necessary accommodations and modifications. IEP meetings will continue to be held virtually or by phone to keep visitors out of the building. Health and safety recommendations are to keep children from moving between classes; however, learning support students will have a choice as to whether or not they transition between rooms throughout the day.
WCMS Principal Angela Friebolin said the school currently uses the Unique Learning System for virtual learning, a program tailored to help children with intellectual disabilities.
During the public participation portion of the meeting, many questions were asked via Zoom. One participant asked how students can be expected to learn synchronously at home when parents have to work.
“There are a variety of things that are not perfect with this situation as a whole,” Hackett replied. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Another question asked the board if families would be notified if a student tests positive for COVID-19.
“There will be no communication from the district if a positive test occurs within the school. We will follow what the DOH gives us as a protocol,” Hackett said. “They will do the contact tracing, and they will contact us, and we will assist with that. If we are at liberty to contact the parents, we will.”
Currently, there is no specific guidance as to what the district should do if a student tests positive. However, the DOH and the DOE are working on answers to these questions.
Separation rooms have been built in all nurse offices, so any student exhibiting symptoms can be kept away from others.
In response to a question asking if WCSD would separate high-risk children from others, Hackett replied parents with these concerns should discuss options with the school nurse, as well as consider the online learning option.
The district is asking parents to follow a self-screening protocol for their children before putting them on the bus. Temperature scans will be conducted for children boarding the bus, but they will not be done for students at school entrances. Masks are required on buses, and no more than two students can sit in each seat.
Buses will be disinfected between each run and at the end of the day. Sanitizer will be available, and drivers will be wearing protective gear.
WCSD administration is still working on revisions to the attendance policy in light of the pandemic, as they want parents to feel comfortable keeping their children at home when ill without fear of legal action.
Special subjects, such as physical education, art and music, will still be held, with guidelines in place. For example, Friebolin explained PE will be held outside whenever possible, and the focus on team sports will shift to personal fitness, where students will each be assigned a specific zone. Gym spaces and any equipment used will be sanitized between classes.
Friebolin also said art and music curricula are being revised to prevent students from sharing materials and supplies, and these classes will be held in larger spaces, so desks can be spaced 6 feet apart.
One participant was concerned the district would not have adequate supplies to properly clean and sanitize the buildings, but Hackett said enough items have been ordered to cover the first few months of school, and the district has an ongoing ordering cycle to replace products as needed.
One issue WCSD and others across the region face is a shortage of substitute teachers. Hackett stated they are currently working to secure as many substitutes as possible before the school year begins.
Near the end of the meeting, a participant asked board members what their personal decisions are concerning their own children attending school in the fall.
Board member George Makhoul replied, “We have five kids. Three of them will be eligible for school. We have two children that will be in second grade and one that is enrolled in first grade, and our choice for our children is to send them for the in-person education.”
Board members Joseph Shields and Nichole Hartman also have decided to send their children back to school.
William Leiner Jr. stated, “I have six kids, youngest 25. If any or all were school age, they would attend online school. As a registered nurse, I would not have them set foot in a school bus or enter the schools. I would wait for six or seven months to pass to see how things develop.”
“One of my children has had a past battle with RSV, so it’s a tough decision for us, but one that we’re going to make very carefully and do what’s best for our family, as everyone else should,” George Williams said.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had this type of participation, and I think all of us on the board and the school district know that every family has a decision that they want to make for their children, what’s best for their household,” Makhoul said. “I think the solutions aren’t going to be perfect; it’s going to be a work in progress. We appreciate your patience, and just know the administration is wanting to put your children in the best position possible and allow you to have those options.”