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Board adopts health and safety plan

The Northwestern Lehigh School Board met virtually July 22 to discuss and adopt the district’s reopening health and safety plan for the 2020-21 year.

Superintendent Jennifer Holman said the plan covered a variety of different scenarios and phases aligned with Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan.

She asked the board to approve the framework in order to give her the authority to select the best available option when necessary, and to submit the plan to the state Department of Education.

Assistant Superintendent Troy Sosnovik then presented an overview of the plan’s major components.

“This plan represents the instructional models and procedures we will be instituting so we can continue to provide our students education during this challenging time,” he said.

He said Northwestern Lehigh has been collaborating with state and county government partners, as well as local districts, but emphasized the plan was specific to the district and used local data to specifically maximize the district’s available personnel and resources.

The plan was designed by a team of stakeholders - medical professionals, state and local institutions, school board, nurses, teachers and families - which provided unique perspectives and knowledge expertise.

Sosnovik thanked Lehigh Valley Health Network for its guidance and assistance in developing COVID-related procedures, and said the plan had been fully endorsed by LVHN.

The plan, organized around five key strategies - social distancing practices to the greatest extent feasible and appropriate, sanitizing high-touch areas, frequent and effective hand hygiene, avoiding face touching, and training for students, parents and employees, addresses over 20 instructional, operation and health sections.

Sosnovik also said the plan focuses on, among other goals, a safe return for students and employees, creating a conducive learning and teaching environment, community transparency, creating a “living document” to adapt to ever-changing guidance, and leveraging data, credible information sources and health partner input.

He said each section contains three phases: red (substantial spread), yellow (minimal/moderate spread) and green (low/no spread).

They are “aligned to Gov. Wolf’s reopening phase, as well as the Department of Health’s designation for community spread,” and includes action steps and links to district procedures.

Regarding instructional models Sosnovik said that in the red phase the district will operate through online-only instruction in the form of self-paced modules and/or live instruction from a district teacher.

While similar to the virtual learning during the spring, Sosnovik said the new instruction will provide “much more rigor and structure … to adhere to the state’s instructional time requirements.”

In the yellow and green phases Northwestern Lehigh plans to offer three options - online-only instruction, a blended model where students would be split into cohorts and instruction would be delivered both online and in-person on alternating days; and a traditional, five-day per week in-school option.

Sosnovik said the district would prefer the traditional option “because of all the additional benefits beyond education children receive when they are physically present in our classes,” noting that schools not only provide academic instruction but also social and emotional skills, reliable nutrition, physical, speech and mental health therapy, and physical activity opportunities, among other benefits.

Throughout all phases, parents will also have the option to choose the district’s Digital Academy or home-school their child.

Sosnovik said parents can expect “one or more of these models for the fall of 2020,” and that the district may alternate between options based on local health data and/or state and federal guidance.

Sosnovik also focused on transportation, noting that this was one of the greatest logistical challenges of reopening.

He said that as a major transportation provider, Northwestern Lehigh would face challenges in transporting students and that a balance of three mitigation strategies - social distancing, face coverings and ventilation - is crucial to provide these services.

In the yellow phase, Sosnovik said the district may not provide transportation services, and parents and guardians will need to transport their child to and from school.

However, he added that if there is an extended yellow phase, the district may consider implementing community stops with no more than one student per seat.

During the green phase, the district will provide transportation with no more than two students per seat.

During both phases, all transported students will need to follow social distancing to the extent possible and are required to wear face coverings in line with the universal face covering order and current health guidance.

Regarding face coverings, Sosnovik acknowledged community members are individuals who may be “strongly for or against” face coverings but regardless, Northwestern Lehigh must follow all federal and state laws and orders.

He said effective July 1, the Secretary of Health had put in place the Universal Face Coverings Order mandating the use of coverings indoors and outdoors throughout the state “and we have to ensure our plan reflects that order.”

As a result, Northwestern Lehigh staff and students must have a face covering in their possession to be utilized as instructed, including if the individual becomes symptomatic or if minimum social distancing cannot be maintained.

The district will accept written medical exemptions for individuals who cannot wear a face covering.

Sosnovik said for students, face coverings are required during specific times regardless of phase or order - transportation, movement through buildings, food service lines, or when a child exhibits COVID-related symptoms - because in these environments “we have less control or ability to reinforce our social distancing standards.”

In classrooms, face coverings are required during yellow phase and strongly encouraged in green.

Employees are required to wear face coverings at all times, with some exceptions during green phase if on break or outdoors if practicing social distancing.

Regarding classrooms, the plan calls for limiting individuals per room to maximize social distancing, reorganizing schedules to limit the number of people during transitions and allow students and staff to be as static as possible, holding classes in large rooms, spaces or outdoors when possible, and limiting student interactions and the sharing of materials to the extent possible.

Sosnovik also noted that the district’s approach to social distancing “is to strive for 6 feet, but no less than three,” which continues to be supported by numerous health organizations and LVHN.

In the presentation, he also addressed food services, transitions and movements throughout buildings, recess and physical education, musical programs, extracurricular activities and cleaning, sanitizing, disinfection and ventilation efforts as described in the plan’s framework.

Additionally, Sosnovik spoke about the importance of family support and maintaining two-way communication between the district and the home, saying these factors are “critical to the success of this plan.

“At no other point will the relationship between the home and school be so important,” he said

He said a website has been developed where the district will continue to provide ongoing communication and collaboration with families regarding the plan’s elements, district and school-specific protocols, and best hygiene practices.

Additionally, Sosnovik said signs, bookmarks and screening cards had been created to reinforce practices and protocols at home, and he asked families to review and discuss the new guidelines with their children before returning to school.

Furthermore, he asked parents to complete a screening of their child each day - a temperature and symptom check - and to not send their child to school if they are sick with any illness.

He also told parents to ensure their emergency contact information is accurate, as school procedures call for sending any students exhibiting symptoms home as soon as possible.

Per a screening card, parents should not send their child to school if they exhibit one or more of the following symptoms: fever/chills, shortness of breath or trouble breathing, new or worsening dry cough, or close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID-19 in the past 14 days.

Additionally, Northwestern Lehigh advises children stay home if they exhibiting two or more of the following symptoms: fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion or runny nose, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea or chest discomfort.

If symptomatic, parents should contact their medical provider for a screening and email the district at covidscreening@nwlehighsd.org about the absence, and to provide a medical provider’s note to inform the school about the outcome of the screening.

Additionally, Sosnovik said administration had been working with school nurses to create separation rooms in each school building to separate symptomatic individuals from the general population, and said the district has been assigned a direct contact within the state Department of Health regarding contact tracing, guidance and decision-making support.

He emphasized“the responsibility of contact tracing falls on the Department of Health, and not the Northwestern Lehigh School District,” adding the department will inform students and employees who they deem to be ‘close contacts,’ while the district will provide information to make informed decisions and facilitate communications, but only upon request.

In closing, Sosnovik said “above everything else, we want you to know we are all in this together, and together we will get through this,” and that success is dependent on the continued collaboration and communication between the district and families.

Board members commended the stakeholder team’s work, saying it addressed many of the concerns and possible scenarios, and that it was a good first step toward the 2020-21 school year before unanimously approving the health and safety plan.

Moving forward, Holman and Sosnovik said the district’s plans would be to submit the plan to PDE, gather additional data and feedback from families, review the latest guidance from health partners, and provide an additional plan update to families Aug. 3.

The full 39-page health and safety plan, as well as a parent preview video and additional communications can be found on the district’s COVID-19 information page at nwlehighsd.org/COVID-19.

Questions should be emailed to admincontact@nwlehighsd.org.

PRESS PHOTO BY SARIT LASCHINSKY Northwestern Lehigh school board members and administrators held a special meeting July 22 to discuss and adopt the district's health and safety plan for the 2020-21 school year.