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Williamsport Area School District announces school return plan

Plans to bring students back to school Sept. 1 with a hybrid alternate phase of education were announced at the Williamsport Area School Board’s meeting Tuesday, by Dr. Timothy S. Bowers, district superintendent.

With the district pivoting to this model, Bowers stressed that people need to remember “this is a public health crisis and we’re trying to educate through it.”

Under this plan, students would attend class on a staggered scheduled based on the alphabet. Some students would attend in-person instruction on Mondays and Wednesdays and remote learning on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The other group would reverse the days of instruction. All students would attend classes remotely on Friday.

Bowers noted that the plan offers flexibility should the governor shut down schools due to a COVID-19 case increase.

Following the approval of the health and safety plan at the board meeting two weeks ago, the administration sent out a parent survey to determine which option parents preferred for sending their children back to school next month.

Bowers noted that there are almost 5,000 students in the district and over 4,500 people responded to the survey.

Parents were asked to choose between in-person instruction, totally remote or a hybrid of remote and in-person.

According to Dr. Susan Bigger, assistant superintendent, who presented the findings of the survey to the board, 40 percent of the respondents said they preferred in-person, 33 percent said hybrid and 27 percent said remote

“There was no single phase or choice that received a strong majority of responses,” Bigger said.

“It was clear to us in both the survey and in the questions that we have been fielding in the last two weeks, families have split views on phases that they feel most comfortable in sending their child in or sending their child back at all,” she added.

Part of the survey included questions asking parents to decide if the district reopened with in-person classes, would you send your child to school or would you choose remote instruction? Another question asked if the district opened in the hybrid alternate phase, would you send your child or choose remote?

Of the people that responded, 75 percent said that if the hybrid model was implemented they would send their child to school. Only 1,145 people said they would opt for remote learning in the hybrid phase, while 1,730 respondents said if schools reopened in-person they would choose remote instruction for their child.

“If our goal is to return as many students as possible to school and reduce the number of students in remote, this follows our recommendation of opening up in a hybrid phase,” Bigger said.

Concerns expressed by board members during the meeting focused on the fact that students would not be receiving new instruction five days a week and were more likely to lag behind in the curriculum.

“I just want to rethink my concern about covering the curriculum and the content so that when we do resume in-person instruction, we are not so far behind that our students can’t meet the expectation or the grade level or the courses that they’re assigned to,” said board member Jane Penman.

Penman noted that she had understood the hybrid model would include having teacher instructional time on all days.

“Having a teacher for instructional purposes two days a week, does not seem satisfactory to me,” Penman said.

Parents who participated during the comment portion of the meeting expressed concerns that they had not fully understood what the hybrid model was as it was presented in the survey.

“Seeing what was presented and hearing about the hybrid model, I feel fairly certain that many parents would agree that we didn’t get accurate information with that first survey,” said district parent Jennifer Thomke.

“Now that I’ve seen what this hybrid model is and it’s not anything like I thought it would be, I don’t think I would answer any of those survey questions the same,” Thomke added.

Bowers told the board that the district’s plan is designed to be flexible, so if infection rates go down or another district comes up with a better plan, the district would review that.

He noted that there are area districts that are opening with face-to-face but have a much smaller student population.

“Maybe they will be able to handle the social distancing that we can’t,” he said.

“To be able to say to our community that we can guarantee that we’re going to keep those kids socially distanced, and we can create a time when they can take those masks off, and take a break from those masks, is just a promise we can’t make at this point,” he said.

Following a lengthy discussion about the issue, the board urged Bowers and the administration to try to develop a more robust program for the hybrid phased reopening.

Board members present for the meeting were: Lori Baer, Patrick Dixon, Jennifer Lake, Penman, Star Poole, Marc Shefsky, Nancy Story Somers and Adam Welteroth. Absent was Barbara Reeves.

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