Groups weigh in on fall school openings

Times Observer photo by Brian Ferry Warren County School District Superintendent Amy Stewart speaks regarding the plan for reopening schools in the fall to the community-business focus group Monday at Warren Area High School.

The apparent consensus is “open schools.”

Warren County School District has held several focus groups to receive input from stakeholders about what they think school should look like in the fall.

The final decisions are up to the school board, but the majority of stakeholders that are talking have said they would like to see something approaching the old normal.

On Monday, three groups — students, business and community members, and parents — met with Warren County Superintendent Amy Stewart to share their thoughts on what school should look like in the fall. Meetings with teachers and staff were held last week.

From an educational standpoint, and others, “the best thing we can do for kids is to have them in school,” Stewart said. “School closure is super disruptive to families and employers.”

But, there are other concerns to be weighed and “we want to make sure we are hearing our constituents,” she said.

She introduced the groups to the situation.

“We have to look at safety,” she said. “We have to look at equity. And we know we’re going to have to be flexible.”

Federal and state entities are not telling the district how to operate. Those entities are providing guidelines.

The guidelines include cleaning and disinfecting, masks and other personal protective equipment, and other measures that could be managed.

“At the end of the day, it’s our choice,” Stewart said. “The big barrier for us is, if someone comes in and forces us to maintain six feet of physical distance, there is no way we could do it. Transportation is a deal-breaker.”

Buses that can carry as many as 72 students could transport no more than 12. Classrooms, most of which have 24 or more students in them, could accommodate far fewer. At Eisenhower Middle High School, the school with the district’s largest classrooms, there could be about 14 students in a room. On the other end, at Sheffield Elementary School, only seven would be allowed.

“We’ve been trying to plan in terms of what we can control,” Stewart said. I can’t build new schools and I can’t go out and hire 300 new teachers.”

Busing is a major concern if the distancing rules are strictly enforced. “We have the second largest geographic district in the commonwealth,” Stewart said. “‘Let’s run another set of buses’ doesn’t work here.”

Another concern was at-risk teachers. Stewart said statewide figures show 20 percent of teachers are in an at-risk category and the district’s numbers are very close to that.

She said the district needs those teachers to be healthy and working. “I have 362 teachers,” she said. “We cannot function daily with 72 teachers out.”

The district will have to act if there are COVID-19 cases identified in the schools, and Stewart said that is only a matter of time.

“It’s coming,” she said. “We’re not going to stay home until it’s over.”

“What’s going to happen when we have our first positive case in a school setting?” she asked. “If it’s structured enough, we might only have to send one class home for quarantine. At the high school level? We might have to close the whole school.”

The current procedure is to close down for 24 hours of cleaning, she said. The building would then be considered ready. However, the people in the schools could be a very different matter.

The district is at an advantage in that kind of scenario compared to the past year.

It has beefed up its ability to offer virtual programming and education could continue if students are forced to stay away from the buildings.

The district has offered its Virtual Academy cyber school program for a decade. But, it was not prepared to deliver education via that platform to 4,000 students on a moment’s notice when the schools closure was announced by Gov. Tom Wolf on March 13.

The parents did not want to see a repeat of the “education” provided in the immediate aftermath of the closure.

The district has acquired many more pieces of needed technology – laptops and hotspots – and officials expect to be able to provide online programming to an overwhelming majority of students if another shutdown is called. There are still areas of the county where a hotspot will not provide an internet connection.

If there is a wide-spread closure, school will look much different than it did in the spring, as students will learn through Virtual Academy.

Even if schools open much as normal, having the extra technology in place also means the district is better prepared to offer Virtual Academy to a much higher percentage of its students – a likelihood in the fall.

“We know that some families are going to demand options,” Stewart said.

She expects both of the major options currently in play – a fairly normal school experience with additional cleaning and disinfecting and as much distancing as possible, and education through the Virtual Academy – to be fully suitable for students’ needs.

Asked if she had sent out surveys to see how many parents would send their students to schools and how many would opt for virtual delivery, Stewart said she was waiting until she could give a clear description of the re-entry plan.

Parents asked about filling in the educational gap left at the end of the year.

Stewart said teachers are working on making sure their curriculums are ready to handle those gaps. And, online summer school options include free refreshers for students who were enrolled in those classes last year.

The district’s early elementary grades could open up early – providing two weeks of additional school to help make sure students are on time in their reading development.

“We’re trying to think of everything we can,” Stewart said.

Parents asked about the possibilities of providing distancing space by finding spaces in the community – churches and social halls, mobile classrooms, and others.

Those all present challenges, Stewart said, and she hopes to be able to use the district’s buildings – the current ones – exclusively.

Asked about using district property at Pleasant and Sugar Grove, she said, “I wouldn’t leave my dog alone at Pleasant Township” School. And the Sugar Grove building is in full use as an operations center.

Allegheny Valley could add some square footage. The new owners have reached out to the district and offered space there, she said.

Still, “if I find 20 more classrooms, I need 20 more teachers,” Stewart said. “That’s about $2 million.”

“I think we can create a plan in green that allows kids the freedom they are accustomed to,” Stewart said.

All of the possibilities discussed applied only to the first months of school. “Everything we’re thinking about is first quarter out of the chute,” she said.

Retro-fitting buses with dividers between seats is discouraged by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but a parent suggested that an adult, or even an older student could be responsible for wiping down surfaces on buses to make them somewhat safer.

With lunches likely to be brought to students, rather than students congregating in lunch spaces, one parent brought up food allergy concerns.

The district is expecting to have to deliver standardized testing. Some test requirements were waived for the end of the past school year and the start of the next. And Stewart said the district will have to expect lower scores after students missed months of education.

One parent said some long-term good could come of COVID-related changes.

Students and adults may learn how to better prevent the spread of infections from COVID-19 to the flu and even the common cold.

“At some point in time, parents have to step up,” another parent said. “Don’t send your kid to school sick.”

No matter what the board decides, the return will not be a free-for-all, Stewart said.

There will be precautions in place. “We have some medically fragile kids in our school settings,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to put them at risk by being cavalier.”

Stewart met with teachers and other staff during meetings last week.

The final public meeting is a virtual meeting for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, attend one of the in-person meetings.

As one parent pointed out, that meeting could be the one where people who are opposed to a “full” reopening would attend and make their voices heard because those opposed are less likely to attend in-person meetings.

The information from the focus groups will be presented to the board at the June 29 committee meetings. Stewart said she expects some kind of decision to be made at the July 13 board meeting.

The district must also approve an athletics plan. “We’re moving forward as though we can make it happen,” she said of fall sports.

“We’re going to make some big decisions here very shortly,” Stewart said.

After a parent said, “I would totally be comfortable if someone said, ‘we go back normal or you can go virtual,'” the parent meeting erupted into applause.

“My message from this group is loud and clear,” Stewart said of the parent group. “Do some make-sense types of things, but I want my kid to go to school and be there on a pretty normal basis while providing additional precautions.”

The student group was the smallest of the focus groups, but they were active participants in their educational futures, Stewart said. Part of their message was that the district could put whatever restrictions in place and “not everybody’s going to play ball.”

Many of the parents agreed.

“We want to go back to school,” one parent said. “Not the ‘new normal’… normal.”


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