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BASD mulls return to five-day on-site instruction for elementary

At its Feb. 22 board meeting, BASD finalized an updated charter school renewal policy, had the third reading of an updated bullying policy, and approved bill payments. Eight of nine members were present; all measures passed 8-0, with a single abstention regarding a single check.

However, the big news from BASD came hours before the meeting, when Superintendent Dr. Joseph Roy sent a video message and a survey to all parents and guardians of elementary students. Based partly on guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the City of Bethlehem Health Bureau, and partly on lower positive coronavirus test numbers in the community, the district is considering returning students in grades kindergarten through five to in-person instruction five days per week, starting April 11.

This timely news came the same day that JAMA Pediatrics published the results of an investigation indicating that “voluntary behavioral changes,” such as reduced time at work, were three times more strongly associated with COVID-19 incidence and mortality than school closures were (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/2776608).

Roy noted that the City of Bethlehem Health Bureau has greenlighted the return – provided that positive-test numbers do not rise – but that the response to the survey of parents, as well as a survey of teachers, will also guide the district’s decision. “There are students whom this [hybrid model] is definitely not working for,” Roy said, which is “a pressing concern of ours.” He also noted, “We have not had transmission of the virus in school,” and pointed out that the AAP has recommended that students ages 10 and younger can attend school with “social distancing” of between three and six feet, which would allow the district to fit its currently enrolled elementary students into the available classroom space.

“Studies have shown that younger children are less susceptible to contracting the virus and […] to transmitting the virus to others,” Roy said, adding that, “the primary threat, if you will, to adults in schools is other adults.” Discussing the recommendations of the U.S.’s national pediatric professional organization, he pointed out, “AAP also recognizes and balances, as we have to, mental health concerns of students, and the academic losses of students,” with safety concerns. “There’s more evidence that with younger kids, we can [maintain a safe environment] with three to six feet of social distancing, and masking.”

A return to five days per week in the classroom for elementary students will be discussed at the curriculum committee meeting on Monday, March 8.

The updated charter school renewal policy approved at the board meeting specifies timelines for renewal applications, as well as making clear the five indicators of success about which the application is designed to collect data. These indicators are student achievement and school accountability, school operations and management, school safety and security, overall school design, and plans for the future. Making clear these decision factors, as well as application deadlines, is part of the board’s strategy to smooth future charter renewal requests. Last year, the board voted to reject the renewal application of Lehigh Valley Academy, citing – among other factors – safety issues with transportation routes at the proposed new site and worrying levels of debt to be taken on to finance new construction.