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Williamsport Area School District’s hybrid learning model brings out demonstrators

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Around 25 protesters showed up to protest the Williamsport Area School Board's decision to not open the school up to 5 day a week attendance by students before the weekly school board meeting at the high school Tuesday.

Several parents of Williamsport Area School District students demonstrated Tuesday night before the school board meeting, most expressing their displeasure with a hybrid instructional model put in place to prevent spread of COVID-19 at the start of the school year.

“Try learning algebra from home,” one woman said beside her 14-year-old son.

“Those kids on the football field,” she said, pointing to the high school practice happening during the demonstration, “They (players) can interact but my child can’t go to school full-time.”

The gathering of sign-holding parents, some wearing top hats and others in cherry and white Millionaires garb at the entrance to the high school, so school board directors and administration holding the meeting an hour later would see them.

The event was organized by Kayla Flook, a parent and founder of “Let Our Kids Be Present.”

Flook and several of the parents in the organization said the board did not take the results of a survey into account.

“By an overwhelming majority of the 3,044 households surveyed (with a 79.6% response rate) in the district, 1,422 or 59.37 percent supported a return to five-days per week, in-person learning,” Flook said.

Adding in the 135 households that would switch from the current hybrid model to in-person learning brought the total to 1,557 respondents or 65 percent, she said.

“My kids are struggling with their grades,” said Justin Morris, whose one son was marked absent up to 10 days since the start of the school year, a rarity before the pandemic.

“The bell ringers are not working,” Morris said, a reference to how he believed the district was not accurately recording attendance.

“The absence rate has exploded in the hybrid model,” Flook noted. It has been a serious concern for younger students in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Sarah Frank shared her thoughts on remote learning.

“This is a failure,” Frank said.

She urged the district to pay attention to the majority of parents.

“Go back to full-time,” Frank said. “Use social distancing and hand washing.”

Moreover, Frank said the school board was not listening to the results of the survey.

“There is a disconnect,” she said.

Parent Eric Dieffenderfer didn’t hold back his feelings.

He spoke about the hybrid model creating a need for him and his wife, Joy, to hire a babysitter. It has completely thrown off the couple’s daily schedule, he said.

As for homework, he said, much of the online learning can’t be done for their child until they get home.

Ahead of the school board meeting, Dr. Timothy S. Bowers, the district superintendent, provided a rationale for the hybrid learning model.

Ahead of the demonstration, Bowers said the number of COVID cases put the county in the “moderate phase,” at which point the state suggests schools open in a hybrid model of instruction with students attending school on a rotating basis.

Students in the district were divided into an A and a B group with each being in school two days and out of school for two with all students being remote on the fifth day, Bowers said.

At the last board meeting, earlier this month, Bowers said, “The other question we’ve had a lot from the community is when we’re going to bring all students in. I know I promised the community early on that we would make decisions based on science and we’re continuing to do that.”

The number of positive cases is on the rise statewide, including within Lycoming County, according to the state Department of Health.

“As you know, our numbers in Lycoming County have increased to some degree,” Bowers said. “We’re watching them and hopefully those numbers were very temporary and they’ll start to come down.

“We have been working on a plan to get students back to a five-day cycle if that’s what we choose as a district,” he added. “When we do that and how we do that has to be very calculated and really has to be orchestrated. We have to make sure we do that in a safe and responsible manner.”

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