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Board talks FBTAA lease extension, school reopening

Meeting Sept. 8 to hear routine energy and summer construction project updates, the BASD school board also considered a proposal to extend its exclusive lease with the Freemansburg-Bethlehem Township Athletic Association (FBTAA) for four baseball fields on the property of Miller Heights ES. FBTAA built the fields in 1995 and has continuously renewed its lease with the district. There is no cost to FBTAA for the lease; BASD considers the association’s ongoing maintenance of the fields and trash receptacles payment in kind. The board will vote on the extension at its Sept. 21 meeting.

Chief Facilities Officer Mark Stein provided a status report on the Asa Packer ES and Spring Garden ES HVAC updates, which were completed over the summer. These updates improved energy efficiency at the schools, as well as providing the ability to dehumidify the buildings. The next elementary school scheduled to have HVAC upgrades is Farmersville; planning is approximately 75 percent complete. Stein also noted that security cameras are slated to be installed at BASD Stadium and the Education Center at 1516 Sycamore St.; these projects are making their way through the City of Bethlehem permitting process.

The curriculum committee meeting included an update on school reopening from Assistant Superintendent Dr. Jack Silva, who credited Chief Technology Officer Marie Bachman for deploying hardware and software to all students who required them to start the school year. ilva said the hybrid opening for pre-K through 12th grade allowed the school to meet its goals of adhering to the district’s health and safety plans, and getting into academic routines. He noted that crowding on buses has not been an issue, and that there have not been issues with mask or social distancing compliance. He remarked that with half the students in the building at any given time, it is “eerily quiet.”

Silva noted that the district is managing metrics for students logging in to Schoology and Zoom, to ensure that all hybrid-model students are staying on top of lessons and work during their three online-only days each week.

For eClassroom – the district’s online-only program – there are 44 independent elementary “classrooms.” All eClassroom students check in with teachers on Monday afternoons, with most learning delivered asynchronously to help working parents, and additional Zoom check-ins scheduled during the week. “Hopefully, one day, we’ll all be back in school together,” Silva said, explaining that eClassroom students are supposed to follow the same material and same pace as their hybrid-model peers. There is a small waiting list of students waiting to move to eClassroom; after those moves takes place, there will be about 25 percent of students from pre-K through 12th grade (roughly 3,000 students) attending online only.

At the end of last school year, there were 177 students enrolled in the BASD Cyber Academy (online-only education, delivered by Intermediate Unit 20 teachers); there are currently 203 students enrolled, a slight increase.

“I believe the hybrid is the best for academic success, and for students’ social and emotional learning. We look forward to more students coming back into the hybrid, and to the hybrid folding back into traditional in-classroom learning for all students,” Silva noted.

Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy saiddistrict administrators meet with community health officials on a weekly basis. There has been one BASD employee who tested positive – prior to the start of school, but after interacting with colleagues – and there have been a few teachers who were required to quarantine because of close contact with college students who tested positive.

Dr. Roy said he no longer checks baseball box scores, but checks his COVID spreadsheets to stay on top of the coronavirus situation at the schools. Kathy Halkins, who formerly led BASD health services, has been retained as a consultant to track employee health status; Dr. Kim Brannan is monitoring student health status.

The board also heard Silva’s proposal of paying a stipend to designated eClassroom team leaders at each grade, who would help their peers work together to develop content and assessments. Chief Human Resources Officer Russ Giordano is working on a proposed pay rate for team leaders, with the goal of a board vote on Sept. 21.

Last spring, the statewide Keystone exams were canceled because of the coronavirus; the state Department of Education (PDE) allowed districts to decide whether to hold makeup exams, or simply allow students to take them at the end of the first semester and the end of the second semester. BASD has elected the latter option.

Board president Mike Faccinetto voiced his interest in working with state legislators in Harrisburg to return local control to some of the educational programs, e.g., teacher evaluations and graduation requirements. Faccinetto noted that members of both political parties have expressed the belief that local control of decisions like school sports is best.

Board member Dr. Karen Beck Pooley expressed a wish that with in-person class time so precious, statewide tests in the spring could be avoided, but Faccinetto reminded the board that federal money tied to Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) would be unattainable without students taking mandatory state exams.

Board member Shannon Patrick asked what will be done if students don’t log in; Roy explained that guidance counselors will track them down and ensure that they log in, and remarked that with lower in-person attendance, guidance counselors’ duties will shift toward online student support.

Board member Winston Alozie asked whether there were components of the hybrid model that BASD would likely retain when schools return to normal. Dr. Roy responded that particularly for high school, some aspects of educational delivery could change permanently.

For elementary students, Roy remarked, “If childcare was something we didn’t have to worry about, then all kinds of possibilities open up.” Roy and Silva will be working together on the high school program of studies this week.

Board member Angela Sinkler expressed concern about some Liberty HS athletes she saw “face-to-face planking” on an athletic field on her way to the meeting, and said she was worried that student behavior after the end of the school day could “derail” health and safety efforts during class time. She said she was “pretty shook up” by seeing athletes exercising outdoors without masks on. Roy responded that the schools would reinforce the statewide mask mandate messaging.