Two main issues took front stage at last night’s board meeting: planning for greater-in person instruction and next year’s budget.
Superintendent Campbell provided details on the factors, and the challenges, of planning a return of all students for in-person instruction five days a week. The bottom line? It remains a huge problem. The factors constraining such a return currently include the level of covid spread in the community, the official health and safety recommendations of the CDC and the PA Department of Health, and the rate of vaccine distribution among educators.
She outlined some of the alternatives they have looked at to overcome the constraints the district faces. These include using alternate spaces in the schools (like cafeterias and gyms), bringing in portable classrooms, and hiring more teachers. She also shared some examples of why these options may not be feasible. Cafeterias and gyms, for example, are already being used to maintain social distancing; portable classrooms are expensive, cannot be permitted quickly, and would require additional teachers to staff; hiring more teachers is not financially viable (the example she gave was that kindergarten alone would require 18 new teachers to bring kindergarten classes back to buildings full time given current social distancing requirements).
As part of this discussion, the district lawyer, Marc Fisher, described current state requirements for districts that offer in-person instruction in the midst of substantial covid spread, against the current state guidelines (this includes East Penn). Those requirements, which both the superintendent and board president had to personally attest to last November, include enforcing mask use and 6′ social distancing whenever students are eating or taking ‘mask breaks’. He reported that the state is currently investigating some districts that have violated these requirements, and that violating districts may be forced by the state into remote-only instruction and suspension of all extra-curricular activities, including athletics.
One of the things I learned as part of this presentation and discussion was that returning to full in-person instruction can’t be done by simply ignoring the 6′ social distancing guidelines that public health experts continue to recommend. This distance is in some instances a requirement (as noted by Marc Fischer). The district has also evaluated many requests for accommodations– by both students and staff– on the basis of the protection this 6′ social distancing provides. Changing it would therefore also require revisiting those accommodations, which could impact the number of teachers available for in-classroom teaching, mask exemptions for some students, etc.
These hard truths are difficult to swallow. I doubt any of the presentation or discussion is what most people want to hear. At the same time, it was useful to have some of the complexities of the administration’s ongoing planning laid out for the board and the public. And there was some good news! Some of the students with the greatest need for in-person instruction five days a week are already receiving it. Dr. Linda Pekarik, Director of Special Education, reported that the district has thus far been able to accommodate all students with disabilities that necessitated full in-person instruction.
Next Year’s Budget
The 2021-2022 district budget was the second main discussion item last night. The district hopes to restore 2 of the 6 teaching positions that were eliminated due to budget cuts last year, as well as restore over $1 million that was cut from individual school building budgets. Two of the main drivers of increased costs next year are health insurance, whose price tag is currently expected to rise 10%, and charter schools, whose cost is expected to rise 29%. The district also expects $2.8 million in new federal covid relief funding, but this will likely not impact the budget either way because the revenue will be offset by the expenses of the things it goes to pay for (right now, slated to be remedial instruction to make up for the impact of the pandemic).
The district is at the preliminary stages of the budgeting process, so there isn’t a lot of detail yet. It is worth noting, though, that the district could save $742,000 next year if the state adopts a new proposal to require charter school payments to match actual charter school costs.
One final note: The superintendent did address ongoing concerns with the shift calendar again last night. While not yet official, the current plan is to have Group B make up for lost in-person days compared to Group A on Wednesdays in April. (Watch this specific update here.)