School districts plan reopenings during ‘health crisis’

Dates for returning to school may differ from district to district and the way students will attend school may differ, but one thing all districts in the area agree on — students will need to wear masks or face coverings in order to return to any form of in-person instruction for Fall 2020.

With the reopening of schools quickly approaching, local school districts are attempting to finalize plans for the process, working in a situation that at times rapidly changes due to the state of the pandemic and new directives which come almost daily from the state’s departments of education and health.

Each district has approved the required health and safety plans mandated by the state for the reopening of schools. Three options-in-person instruction, remote learning and a hybrid model which is a combination of remote and in-person-are available for districts to implement.

“So, we’re still in this COVID situation. We still have to try to figure out all these different guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health,” said Timothy S. Bowers, superintendent at the Williamsport Area School District at a recent board meeting. “Literally every other day we get some message from PDE or the Department of Health — hey, you need to do this, maybe you need to do this.”

Bowers, whose district is set to open Sept. 1, announced at the meeting that the district’s administration was opting for schools to reopen on a hybrid alternate model, with half of the students each coming on alternate days for in-person instruction and half for remote learning. All students would work remotely on the fifth day.

With almost 5,000 students in his district, Bowers said that it would be impossible to follow guidelines for social distancing and expect to open schools for in-person instruction.

Also announcing that her district would be opening with a hybrid model was Daphne Bowers, superintendent at the Montgomery Area School District. Students in that district will go back to school Aug. 31.

“The only way we can follow the CDC recommendations and PDE recommendations for opening school is to have half of the students here at a time,” Daphne Bowers said.

Under both the Williamsport and Montgomery plans, the students will be divided with half attending in-person Mondays and Wednesdays and the other half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Where they differ is when students in the Williamsport District have remote days, they likely would not receive new instruction on those days.

“The concept behind hybrid is that work that they set up in person, which occurs in classrooms now, things such as independent reading, independent writing and note taking … that would be for remote time,” said Dr. Susan Bigger, assistant superintendent at Williamsport. “The direct instruction would be face-to-face.”

Montgomery is planning on providing instruction whether it’s remotely or in the classroom, although Daphne Bowers did caution that what they might look like varies from classroom to classroom and grade level.

“Elementary hybrid might look different than a high school hybrid,” Daphne Bowers said, adding, “our goal is to provide new instruction every day.”

Districts have also discussed offering classes synchronously and asynchronously — meaning that students would participate as the classes are happening or if necessary, they could view classes at a time that is more convenient, such as in the evening.

Another district opting for the hybrid model is South Williamsport Area, which is scheduled to open Sept. 2.

The inability to maintain social distancing within district classrooms was the driving force behind the decision to choose this model was cited by Dr. Mark Stamm, district superintendent at South Williamsport.

“Physical distancing requirements of six feet-we do not have that in any of our classrooms,” Stamm said.

“It’s compounded in our cafeterias. We have many classrooms that have multiple student desks in them so that there’s not any space between students,” he added.

Stamm said the plan in his district is to reduce the number of students in the classrooms by half to create more space between them. To do this, half of the students would come on Monday and Thursday and the other half on Tuesday and Friday. Students not in the classroom would be doing some form of remote learning. On Wednesdays, all students would be remote.

One benefit of reducing the number of students in a classroom is that students would not have to wear masks throughout the entire day because social distancing could be maintained.

Although Lycoming County remains in the governor’s green phase, Stamm said that the statewide mandate that a minimum of the 6 feet of physical distance or masks really governed the district’s decision.

“I don’t really have any pathway through that,” he stated.

“While the students are physically in school, it’s new content. While they’re at home they’ll be working independently on stuff. Some of it will be web-based and some of it will be take-home materials,” he explained while clarifying that students would not be accessing the classroom via the internet on their remote days.

“These orders from the governor and the department of health are ordering us to behave like we’re in yellow, but we’re not and nor are businesses,” Stamm said.

“We’re going to constantly monitor it and we will switch back to all students, in daily, as soon as we possibly can,” Stamm added.

The East Lycoming School District is opening with face-to-face instruction five days a week, but is also offering parents other options.

“We’ve certainly had people inquiring about online learning,” said Michael Pawlik, East Lycoming’s superintendent.

Pawlik said that parents’ receptiveness to sending their child for in-person instruction really depends on the perspective of the family.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach that’s going to work in this situation. If you’re a family that possibly has grandparents living with you or maybe someone in your family has a medical condition, they’re simply aren’t enough protections in the world to make you feel comfortable,” he said.

“On the other end of the spectrum, if your child just thrives on socializing, and being with fellow classmates, you want to see the safest atmosphere you can that allow for all that socialization to occur,” Pawlik continued.

“I think the important thing to remember is that we’re doing everything in our ability to create a safe environment for our students and also to remember this isn’t a school crisis, it’s a community health crisis,” he added.

School at East Lycoming is set to begin Aug. 26.

Both Jersey Shore Area and Loyalsock Township school districts are opening with in-person instruction five days a week. Jersey Shore’s first day is Aug. 27 and Loyalsock’s is Aug. 31.

Gerald McLaughlin, Loyalsock’s superintendent admitted that his administration still had details to work out and that they are meeting to work on protocols, check lists and procedures.

“I have our curriculum person working with families that may have questions on the instruction and our Lancer Learning Institute (the district’s cyber program). We know that there are some families that are still going to want that,” McLaughlin said.

He noted that a survey that the district conducted showed that about 90 percent of the families are sending their children back for in-person instruction. A hybrid option would be instituted if the county goes to the yellow phase.

Jersey Shore Area’s health and safety plan has also been available for public inspection for over a week. The district has posted a survey for parents in addition to frequently asked questions on the website.

Dr. Brian Ulmer, Jersey Shore’s superintendent, said that some parents are expressing concern about the district’s plan for reopening, but he stressed that there are three options available for students. Including in-person instruction.

“Parents can choose what is comfortable for them,” Ulmer stressed.

Montoursville Area School District will be going to a hybrid system of days where some students come in and others do not, however the number of times students go to the school each week will be determined 14 days before the start of school, which will be Sept. 1, said Christina Bason, superintendent.

Each student will be provided a face mask, face shield and gaiter. Their use will be required at all times of the day, she said.

Additionally, the district is planning to give students a 21-inch plexiglass shield to place at their desks. That shield will travel around with the students to each class and will be sprayed with and electrostatic fogging machine overnight.

Ulmer proposed plans a total of 20 minutes will be deduced from teaching time to allow for students to travel to their classes. More than 60 sanitizing stations will be positioned throughout the buildings. An automated kiosk will be stationed at the entrance of the buildings to measure students’ temperatures. If a student is found to have an elevated temperature, they will be taken to the nurse’s office for further examination.

Montoursville’s health plan, in case a student tests positive for COVID-19, will be presented at the Tuesday board meeting.

Although contacted, Muncy School Districts, which will begin classes on Aug. 31, was not available for comment at the time of publication.

Sun-Gazette reporter Derek Danneker contributed to this report


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