The Least Bad Option?

Education in East Penn will be dramatically different this fall than the past. Let’s get that point out of the way right from the start. The continued failure to control the pandemic in the United States has shattered the hopes of reopening public schools with any semblance of normalcy.

The Current Plan

In Pennsylvania, schools are required to develop a health and safety plan that will govern the operation of the school district in the coming school year. Here are the broad outlines of the plan East Penn is currently developing:

  • Parents will get to choose between 100% online instruction or instruction that is in-person twice a week. For those that choose in-person instruction, students will attend several days a week (probably two, but this is still being worked out), and complete instruction online on the other days.
  • School buildings and classrooms are being modified to safely accommodate in-person instruction. Furniture is being removed to free up space for social distancing, group tables are being replaced with individual desks, large areas likes gyms, cafeterias, auditoriums are being repurposed for classroom use, and schools are being equipped for more frequent and thorough disinfecting. Student desks will be kept six feet apart whenever possible. All students, teachers, and staff will be required to wear masks at all times except when they are stationary and at least six feet from any other person. To minimize the spread of germs, student movement through the school and the sharing of school supplies will be minimized. Water fountains will be disabled and lunches will be pre-packaged and served in classrooms.
  • Online instruction will be done by regular East Penn teachers. It will include regular grading (and deadlines), the full curriculum, and a new online teaching and learning system– called Schoology— that is more powerful and has more features than the Google Classroom used in the spring.

There are many more details in the current draft of the plan, which you can read for yourself here. Many other details continue to be worked out. But I think this broad sketch provides a good overall sense of what we can all expect this fall.

7/24 edit: I’ve modified the description above since first writing this post to reflect ongoing revisions being made by the district in response to teacher and parent feedback as well as changing public health recommendations.

What Should We Do?

Is this a good plan? As tempting as it is to ask, I think this is the wrong question. Given where we’ve been put in the current pandemic, ALL the choices available to East Penn and other school districts are– quite frankly– awful choices. There are no good solutions. So it isn’t a question of whether or not this is a good plan. The question is whether this is the least bad option that we can pursue right now?

There are no easy answers. I worry about the out sized confidence of both many who advocate for a complete reopening of the public schools, as well as many who insist the schools should remain completely shut down. Both these positions are fueled by the social media platforms that continue to promote simplistic, black-and-white solutions to complex issues. Neither of these positions is well supported by the available evidence or the weight of expert opinion.

In order to help both myself and others think through the many issues at stake here, this is just the first of a weeklong series of posts on reopening the schools. Here are the others:

Throughout this series, I encourage your questions, your concerns, and your perspective. Please share them in the comment area available at the bottom of every one of my posts.

26 thoughts on “The Least Bad Option?”

  1. I would love someone to address the issue of school sports, particularly in the fall… All of the area colleges have postponed fall contact sports, opting to move them into the spring… I’m not sure that I understand how East Penn will be able to accomplish what no one else is seemingly able to accomplish, relative to the safety of student athletes?

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  2. This is going to be awful for the kids who desperately need the in person instruction and the push to get things done as well as working parents. I know this is an unprecedented time but my child’s HS career is on the line and the lesson I learned from the spring is that online instruction does not work for my high schooler. I fear for their learning in this world and their futures.

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  3. I would like to see information regarding what will happen when a staff member or student is confirmed positive for Covid-19. Will the entire class and all others who were in contact with this individual be expected to quarantine for 14 days?

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    • I would like more information too, and asked about this in our last board meeting. From what I currently understand, the PA Dept. of Health will do contact tracing of all COVID-19 positive cases identified in the district. Anyone who has been in recent “close contact” with the positive case will be required to quarantine for 14 days. This includes students, teachers, and staff. So the answer boils down to how “close contact” is defined in individual circumstances by the PA Dept. of Health and their contact tracers for Lehigh County.

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    • We were told by the dept of health that an exposure is considered when the person was within 6 feet, for more than 20 minutes with no protective equipment (mask).

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  4. It is concerning to me that I can send my child to school with a mask but there may be 10 or more kids in her class that have a letter of exemption for wearing a mask and EPSD cant legally ask for the reason why. Parents should be informed that realistically their child who is attending school will be around many without masks. That can change their decision.

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    • Good news on this front. The new regulations from the state last week eliminated the mask loophole you reference (which was unworkable, for the reasons you suggest). The only exceptions to the mask order will now require documented medical evidence under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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  5. When will more information be available regarding virtual school vs. limited in-person instruction? I feel very unable to make an informed decision since no details have been shared. What teachers will be involved with virtual school? Will students be able to take all classes (including electives) in either format? Can a student/parent change the decision of virtual vs. in-person at any time?

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    • The district plans to reach out to parents to make a choice between 100% remote learning and in-person learning early this week. It is my hope that some of your questions will be answered by further information provided at that time. In the end, though, I think all of us parents will have to make choices without being fully informed– not because details are being kept from us but because the situation with the pandemic is moving so quickly that there are many details that haven’t (or can’t) yet be worked out.

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  6. Personally, I would prefer the hybrid plan for my 2nd grader at 50% student capacity. Restaurants and other businesses are at limited capacity, yet elementary schools are still planning on packing the children into sometimes small, not well-ventilated rooms at full capacity? Unless I can somehow get a guarantee that my child will have the recommended 6 feet (not 3 feet) of separation, I will have no choice but to opt for homeschooling. Unfortunately, this will be detrimental to my high-spirited daughter’s need for social involvement and her socio-emotional learning. Do I compromise her mental health for the sake of her physical health or vice versa? Either way, it feels like a lose-lose situation.

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    • I agree with you, Wendy– it’s a lose-lose situation! There’s no way around it. For me, the goal is to come up with the options in which the least is lost. And maybe we can find some added, perhaps yet unknown, benefit in the bargain. No classrooms, however, will be operating at ‘full capacity’ if you mean the capacity of the classroom before the pandemic. The elementary school classrooms have been modified through both layout and furniture/equipment changes in order to maximize space between students. Alternate spaces like gyms and cafeterias will be used to further reduce classroom density. And a significant number of elementary school parents will choose 100% remote learning, which will further reduce density. I don’t know enough yet to promise you it will be enough. But that is what the district is working toward.

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      • If I recall correctly, the original plan stated <27 to a room. Now, I know my daughter's classroom was only 20-22 a room each year. But even that number would be difficult to space 6 feet apart in the size of rooms she has been in. I am glad to hear they will be attempting to use other spaces. When is the next meeting as I'd like to stay as informed as possible to aid in my decision?

        I also want to thank you for giving us a voice and taking all of our concerns seriously. It is definitely not an easy task!

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        • The next meeting is Monday, July 27th, at 7:30pm. This is a special meeting called specifically to discussed a revised health and safety plan. You will be able to watch the meeting remotely. I will also post a summary, as well as links to the relevant parts of the recording, the following day here on my blog.

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  7. What about the IEP‘s? What about the children who have already fell behind and we’re gonna fall even further behind in their education? What about speech what about OT? School district has legal obligation to fulfill the IEP‘s my question is Are you just gonna let these kids fall behind and not waste your time on them or you actually gonna think about them and worry about how to get them back on track? Am I last and final question is how many contracts have you signed with the state to do diversity with your children and with IEP’s?

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    • The student disabilities office promised last Monday that there was a detailed plan for children with IEPs that would be shared with the board and the public. But I haven’t seen this plan yet. I’m not aware of any specific state contracts focused on either diversity or IEPs. The district does work with a number of outside organizations and agencies on both diversity and disability issues.

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  8. The virtual option for fall really needs to be explained in detail before parents can be expected to choose between it and in-person/hybrid. I have serious concerns with a virtual option that is taught by the same teachers that are leading in-person instruction.

    Specifically, I want to know when teachers will have time to work with students virtually when they are working with students in-person four days a week. This is an even greater concern during weeks when school is only in session 4 days (which is 4 out of the first 10 weeks of school). My fear is that virtual students will lose out on time with their teachers while being held to the same standards and grading policies as in-person students.

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    • I don’t think these decisions have yet been made, Lisa. In many ways, they CAN’T be made until the district knows how many parents want to commit to 100% online. There is thus a major chicken and egg problem here– no way around it. In an ideal world, you would have some teachers working exclusively with students fully online, and other teachers focused exclusively on students who are participating in in-person instruction. But this is obviously only possible if the numbers work out perfectly.

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  9. In regards to meals at school, the newly released regulations from the PA Dept. of Education states that the students need to be 6 feet apart when eating because they need to take their mask off. It also says you should be 6 feet apart in general, but the district is not necessarily going to have that distance between desks.

    What I don’t understand is that, at least for elementary, the plan was that they would be eating lunch at their desks. If their desks are not spaced 6 feet apart under the 100% of kids in school plan (more like 3 feet apart), how can they follow the Dept. of Education’s rule regarding eating? They will have their masks off, eating, sneezing, coughing, etc. right next to other students.

    In some elementary buildings, they also eat breakfast in their classroom and snacks throughout the day. In the middle school and high school, they are also allowed to eat snacks at their desks. How can all of this happen in the classroom when they will not be 6 feet apart but the rule is that they need to be in order to take off their mask and eat?

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    • Great questions. The district is working right now on revising the plan to ensure 6 ft of social distancing between all students in every classroom. I expect we will see substantial revisions of the draft it presented a week ago at The next board meeting, on July 27th.

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  10. Teacher here. First of all, I just want to say thank you. This entire thing is an absolute nightmare, but I am profoundly grateful to have the board we have right now. As dire as everything is, the school board meeting was the first thing to give me hope about any of this in so long: you were all asking the right questions. I sent several “snippets” of it to disheartened educators in other districts, telling them to have hope.

    One of many highlights for me was when you posed the question along the lines of “when do the safety measures put in place outweigh any benefit we are trying to gain from in person instruction?” One thing I can’t stop thinking about (and I’m hardly alone in this) is how am I actually going to teach in person? So many best practices are now off limits. We can’t implement a host of strategies we know work for kids and we have to limit so many of the simple, little things that bring them joy throughout their school day. It all hurts. It really does. Anyway, I feel so fortunate to work in a district with a school board that actual really “gets it”- you fully understand the world of teaching and learning. Many other educators aren’t nearly as lucky.

    I do have a question though. In the beginning of this post it sounds like we are down to two options: all online or hybrid. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the post or maybe I missed the decision: but is the “full return” off the table?

    Again, thank you and please let your colleagues know that there are always members of our community who are deeply grateful for the work of our board even when it might not seem like it at times.

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    • Thanks for your kind words. And I agree, we all benefit from being in a community where we support each other.

      To answer your question: You are correct, a full return to school this fall is NOT on the table given the current public health conditions.

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      • Is elementary still anticipated being a full return with an option of remote? If so, do you know how they plan on handling some of the larger class sizes that are currently sitting at 30 plus students?

        Thank you for all you and the board do for our district!

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        • The district is taking a careful look right now at possible revisions to the draft plan, particularly at the elementary level, to ensure safe physical distancing as well as address a number of other concerns that have been raised. These revisions certainly could result in changes to the number of days students can be accommodated for in-person instruction. We will learn more at the next board meeting Monday night (July 27).

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