Everyone in my neighborhood lost power in the storm caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. And for the first 24 hours or so, we were all in the same boat. I live on a corner, and the block of houses directly across the street had their power restored after two days. Then the block catty-corner from us. And then the block across the side street. Five full days after the storm, we still didn’t have any power while I stared across at my neighbors who had been able to resume their normal lives. It didn’t seem fair, and I fumed about why MY block still didn’t have power.
I’m reminded of this experience when I hear the many questions about how local school districts are addressing the pandemic. “Saucon Valley has kids in person five days a week, why can’t East Penn?” or “What’s wrong with East Penn that they can’t let kids come in four days a week like Whitehall-Coplay?”
These are valid questions. After all, I don’t know a single fellow parent who doesn’t want their kids fully back in school when it is safe to do so.
Why is East Penn Still in Hybrid Mode?
So here’s the clearest answer I know for why that hasn’t yet happened in East Penn: The district did a room by room audit of every single school building this past summer, calculating the maximum number of people each room could accommodate with social distancing. The result? East Penn simply does not have the space to bring students back five days a week and still maintain the social distancing recommended by the CDC and the PA Department of Health. This is true even if you take into account that many families will continue to choose fully remote instruction.
Is this the final word on our situation? Of course not! Here’s what can still help:
- Scientists are learning more and more about Covd-19 every day, and so new science will provide new opportunities to adjust safety measures and provide new protections.
- The spread of Covid-19 has slowed dramatically in our community over just the last few weeks, and further vigilance will give our schools more options for more fully reopening.
- Revisions to the the district’s Health and Safety Plan could allow schools to prioritize those students for whom in-person instruction would have the greatest impact. Our youngest students, for example, and/or students with disabilities.
- There is always the possibility of creative solutions that haven’t yet been given enough consideration. For example, I have repeatedly and publicly advocated looking into greater use of outdoor spaces, tents, and non-district buildings as a way to increase in-person instruction. There are major obstacles to this solution, of course, but it’s an example of the kinds of alternatives that still haven’t been given enough attention. (In this vein, there was a great article recently about how out-of-the-box thinking helped the Seattle Seahawks get through the entire NFL season with zero confirmed cases, in a league which elsewhere saw over seven hundred people test positive.)
What About Other Districts?
I’ve spoken to dozens of people in districts all over the Lehigh Valley, the state, and the country. And while I can’t possibly know every factor that went into every decision, there are a couple of key patterns. There are many smaller districts in the Lehigh Valley that don’t face the same acute space constraints as our own. Emmaus High School, for example, has more students in a single building than Saucon Valley has in their entire school district. Private schools also frequently enjoy much smaller class sizes than East Penn. It is easier for such schools to safely accommodate more of their student body in their buildings, and they therefore may be able to offer more in person instruction than larger, more crowded districts like ours.
And while there’s a natural tendency to fume about the power at neighbors homes when you still don’t have electricity yourself, the fact is that the majority of the districts in the Lehigh Valley are in the same boat as East Penn when it comes to managing the pandemic. Here’s a rundown of what other Lehigh Valley districts are doing (compiled by a friend):
- East Penn: Hybrid K-12
- Allentown: Full Virtual (looking at possible hybrid)
- Allentown Central Catholic Hybrid
- Bangor: K-6 In Person, 7-12 Hybrid
- Bethlehem: Hybrid K-12
- Catasauqua: In Person 5 days a week
- Easton: Hybrid K-12
- Northampton: Hybrid – 4 day in person starting in March at least K-2
- Northern Lehigh: Hybrid K-12
- Northwestern Lehigh: 4 day in person K-1, hybrid 2-12
- Parkland: Hybrid K-12
- Salisbury: K-8 in person, hybrid high school
- Saucon Valley: In person 5 days a week
- Southern Lehigh: Hybrid; 4 day in person starting in March
- Whitehall: In person 4 days starting Feb. 16
- Wilson: Hybrid K-12
Nobody believes hybrid or remote education is as good as in-person instruction. Nobody. I will continue to look for ways that our district can safely provide more in-person instruction to more students. And I know that district administrators have been working tirelessly to find such solutions too.