The East Penn School board met virtually again last night. As always, the entire meeting is available on YouTube. Here’s what you need to know:
A Revised Reopening Plan
The board approved a plan for reopening the schools this fall by a vote of 8-1 (I was the lone dissenting vote). Here are some of the key elements of the final version of the plan:
- Parents will be given a choice between 100% online instruction and hybrid instruction in which attend classes 50% of school days and work from home the other 50% of school days.
- Families will have the opportunity to switch between these two options every three weeks.
- The school day will end earlier every day (2:15pm at the elementary schools; 1:15pm at the middle and high schools) to allow teachers instructional time for those students learning remotely.
- Students will be a minimum of 6′ feet apart from each other (and 6′ from teachers) in all district classrooms.
- All students, teachers, and staff will be required to wear masks (covering both their nose and mouth) whenever they are in building hallways, at bus stops, on school buses, or not maintaining a 6′ distance from others. They will be able to take off their masks when stationary and more than 6′ from each other.
- Exceptions to the mask rule will be made only for medical exemptions required by law and properly documented.
- The district will provide all students in all grades with a chromebook or iPad that can be used for both remote learning and social distancing while in school.
- Remote instruction will consist of both synchronous (everyone working at the same time) and asynchronous (different students working on their own schedule) elements.
- Instruction will be more rigorous than it was this past spring, will follow the district’s normal curriculum for all subjects, and will be graded using the district’s normal grading system.
- Parents will be asked to provide their own school transportation when possible, to reduce crowding on buses. There will be (up to) two students per seat on district buses.
This plan has improved substantially since the first draft earlier this summer. Further details, including video tutorials, are available on a new Fall 2020 Planning Guide to School Opening website created by the district. You may also read the health and safety plan and watch last night’s board discussion of the plan.
Rejected Changes to the Reopening Plan
I offered two changes to the plan during the meeting:
The first would have required the district to take the testing and contact tracing capacity of the community into account in determining the ongoing safety of keeping the schools open, as measured by the county’s test positivity rate. Medical and public health experts at Harvard and M.I.T. recommend a community needs to keep this rate below 3% in order to suppress COVID-19. My colleagues on the board felt this was too strict a safety standard, felt they preferred the recommendation of the local health and safety task force that community testing and contact tracing not be specifically mentioned in the district’s safety plan, and felt the plan should not contain a hard and fast rule that could trigger the need to close the schools. I find the most merit in the last of these arguments. But even here, I think the benefit of having a well-specified backstop against the danger that the testing and contact tracing capacity of the region won’t be able to keep up with the safety needs of the district more than outweigh the constraint it places on district decision making.
The second change I proposed was to allow extra-curricular clubs to begin the school year under the same health and safety guidelines as other district activities (they cannot meet in person under the current plan, until they are phased in at some unspecified later date). My rationale for this was simple: The district has already allowed athletic activities to resume in-person and therefore the same opportunity should be given to other extra-curricular activities, including clubs. The administration offered three rationales for the different standard for clubs: the difficulty of managing after-school activity transportation, the need to minimize risk by limiting interaction between students from different classrooms, and the greater need of athletics to meet in-person compared to clubs that can still meet virtually. To be frank, I am not convinced by any of these arguments. The first two were not raised as concerns when the district resumed athletic activities, so I don’t know why they should selectively apply to clubs. The last one doesn’t take into account the many clubs like Mudd Club, Robotics Club, Astronomy Club, and so forth that– like athletics– can’t meaningfully pursue their passion in online Zoom meetings. It seems to me that the district should be giving all extra-curricular activities equal weight when it comes to mitigating risk. I have a hard time understanding why we can make long and frequent football practices safe right away but can’t do the same for the Earthwatch Club or Buzz Magazine.
Unfortunately, I was not able to convince any of my colleagues on the board that either of these proposed changes would improve the district’s health and safety plan. Both were rejected 8-1 (I was the only yes vote). You can watch the discussion here. (And if you haven’t seen them already, last week I shared a series of posts about school reopening plans: Pandemic Education.)
School Resource Officer
The board unanimously agreed to continue the school resource officer (SRO) program, in which the district funds a full-time Emmaus Police Department officer who serves as a specially-trained SRO stationed in the high school. There is a great deal of evidence that the current SRO, Officer Kloss, has done a superb job in the position. Nonetheless, I raised concerns that the district still has not established concrete criteria for evaluating the SRO program itself that are established in advance, measurable, shared publicly, and approved by the board. This is all the more important as we deepen our understanding of how institutions like school districts continue to contribute to inequality and injustice– both wittingly and unwittingly. The district expressed willingness to work toward more transparency on these standards, and so I hope we can work together to address the concerns I raised in the coming months. You can watch the discussion here; read the memorandum of understanding with the Emmaus Police here.
New Staff Contract
The board unanimously approved a new two-year contract with the district’s administrative assistants, instructional assistants, staff assistants, and health room nurses. These employees agreed to a wage freeze this year, but will all receive a $0.55 per hour pay increase next year, as well as increased personal illness and health benefits along with– for the first time– full pay for days in the district calendar that the schools are scheduled to be closed. The staff that fall under the contract are often the unsung heroes of the district. They have difficult but essential jobs, and their contributions to the quality of the district too often go unrecognized.