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School board votes to end hybrid model

At the Whitehall-Coplay School Board meeting Jan. 11, the board voted against the recommendation of Whitehall-Coplay School District administration and approved a motion to adopt a new four-day-a-week in-person educational model following the Presidents Day holiday break, beginning Feb. 16.

Board member George Makhoul made a motion to approve the WCSD health and safety plan to reflect the modified traditional model for all students in grades K-12. This model would have students attend school in person Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays remaining virtual.

All students may choose online learning instead.

The superintendent would have the discretion to move to a modified model in the event there is insufficient staffing.

Board member Tina Koren made a motion to table Makhoul’s motion, but it failed to pass.

Makhoul’s motion passed 6-3, with Makhoul, Dr. Nichole Hartman, Patty Gaugler, Joseph Shields, William Fonzone Sr. and Wayne Grim voting for the new model.

Koren, Bill Leiner Jr. and George Williams opposed.

According to Makhoul, close to 70 percent of parents who responded to the last survey were comfortable with their children being less than 6 feet apart from others. He said parents still have the option to have their children attend school virtually, adding the COVID-19 positivity rate for the district remains low, at 0.76 percent.

Koren cited concerns about the number of children in each classroom without social distancing and the health of teachers who haven’t been immunized yet.

Before the vote, Dr. Lorie Hackett, WCSD superintendent, presented recommendations from the administration that the instructional model stay as it is for the next few weeks, allowing time for staff to begin getting vaccinated and for the region to move from the status of substantial to moderate spread.

She proposed the potential date of Feb. 16. She asked the board to revisit the decision in a few weeks if there is a substantial change in the number of COVID-19 cases.

Currently, Hackett said the region is in its 10th week in the substantial spread category. No changes have been made to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, masks continue to be required and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Lehigh Valley Health Network and St. Luke’s University Health Network still recommend virtual or blended models.

At this time, Gockley Elementary School classrooms have approximately 10 students per class, with 6 feet of social distancing. With the four-day in-person format, there will be 17 to 21 students in each classroom, with 3 to 4 feet of space between students. The learn-at-home and cyber students make up 33 percent of the Gockley student population.

At Steckel and Zephyr elementary schools, there are about 12 students per class, with 6 feet of social distancing.

If all hybrid students at Steckel move to the four-day model, and the 36 percent who are virtual stay with their current format, there will be 18 or 19 students per class, with 3 to 4 feet of space between them.

At Zephyr, there will be 20 to 23 per class, with 2 to 3 feet between them, assuming the current 32 percent of virtual students stay with that model.

At Whitehall-Coplay Middle School, there are presently 15 students in a class with a 6-foot distance. With the new model, there will be 19 to 21 students in a class, with 25 to 29 in classrooms for special subjects and 3 to 4 feet between students. This is assuming the 43 percent who are currently virtual remain so.

With this change, elementary and middle school students may need to switch teachers.

At Whitehall High School, 55 percent of students are currently learning remotely, and there are about 12 hybrid students per class with 6 feet of distancing. With the new model, there could be up to 25 students per class, with 3 to 6 feet of distancing.

Hackett said lunches will present a challenge, as the district must follow the mandate that students may only take masks off to eat when they are spaced at least 6 feet apart.

In order for this to occur, Gockley, Steckel and Zephyr will need an additional lunch period, with the first lunch beginning 10:30 a.m. and the last lunch 1 p.m.

At WCMS, the gym will be used as an additional lunch room, and some students will eat in their classrooms.

At WHS, the gym will also be used as a second cafeteria, but that will take the space used for physical education. After the end of the last lunch period each day, the tables will need to be broken down so there is space for after-school athletics. Teachers’ schedules will also need to change to assist with student supervision during meal times.

Lehigh Career and Technical Institute students will still follow a hybrid model. WHS will need to find a way to house 120 additional students for morning and afternoon sessions, which will require extra staff to supervise, or add bus runs to take students home after the morning session, so they can continue with the online portion of their LCTI work.

Hackett warned that ignoring the 6-foot social distancing protocol may lead to additional students and staff being exposed to COVID-19. She also said the blended model has been providing a three-day buffer for exposures and contract tracing, and a switch to four days a week may result in a greater chance of school closures.

Staffing also remains a constant concern, and Hackett said she fears the increased exposure could cause more staff members to become ill or need to quarantine. In the event there are not enough teachers to staff the schools, the district would go fully remote.

Vaccinations for teachers are expected to become available soon. At this time, all WCSD nursing staff has received COVID-19 vaccinations.

Also at the meeting, in recognition of School Board Appreciation Month, Hackett thanked board members and read the names and years of service for each member including Grim, 17 years; Fonzone, four years; Williams, four years; Koren, 18 years; Leiner, six years; Hartman, two years; Gaugler, 10 years; Shields, four years; and Makhoul, three years.

Hackett also thanked Lafarge for a donation of 20 holiday baskets for district families, as well as Movement Mortgage for a donation of multiple gift cards for district families.

Hackett presented the Whitehall-Coplay PTO PLUS report from Toni Fillman, who shared that there are still $10 coupon books available on the PTO PLUS Facebook page. PTO PLUS has a new website, which will be added to the school district website shortly.

In other news, the board approved the Accelerated Budget Opt Out Resolution, which certifies the real estate tax rate will not increase by more than the Act 1 adjusted index for the 2021-22 fiscal year budget.

The board approved a contract between PenTeleData and WCSD to provide E-rate eligible Internet services through the Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21 consortium.

Also approved was the appointment of Melissa Sassaman to Whitehall Township Public Library’s board of trustees for a three-year term.

Approved resignations include Mary Shelor, WHS nurse assistant; Nicole Kinsey and Farha Farraj, cafeteria workers; and Heather Gray, paraeducator at Zephyr.

New appointments include temporary professional Sarah Waldon, fifth-grade learning support at Zephyr, at the rate of $58,074 per year; Michael Massimo, sixth-grade salaried substitute teacher at WCMS, at the rate of $51,048; Laura Tiers, seventh- and eight-grade salaried substitute at WCMS, at $51,048; Roy Fulkerson, districtwide technician, at $44,844; Gladis Moussa, ESL paraeducator at Steckel, at $18.44 per hour; and Keila Rodriguez, nurse assistant at WHS, at $25 per hour.

New teacher induction program participants include Sarah Waldon, mentored by Sarah Hirschman, with the additional compensation of $650.

Committee meetings on finance/personnel, education/student activities and operations/transportation will be held 4 p.m. Jan. 25 and Feb. 22.

The next school board meeting will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 8.