Two issues dominated the discussion at last night’s school board meeting: returning kids to in-person learning, and next year’s budget.
Returning to In-Person Learning
The administration presented a plan to offer 5-day-a-week in person instruction for all K-5 students whose parents want it, beginning March 29th (for grades K-2) or April 6 (for grades 3-5). The plan would also allow a similar return for middle- and high school students, but specific dates for those students have not yet been set.
The main way the plan is accomplished is through reducing the minimum social distancing in schools from 6 feet to 3 feet. Six feet social distancing remains the recommendation of both the CDC and the Pennsylvania Department of Health, but other experts– including the American Academy of Pediatrics— have endorsed the lower 3 foot social distancing standard. This proposed change is also tied to Pennsylvania’s rollout of vaccines for all teachers, school staff, and bus drivers. East Penn employees have been allocated enough vaccine for all adults working with K-5 students, and expect additional does for those working in the middle- and high schools to be available by the beginning of April.
Importantly, the district will continue to maintain 6 feet social distancing when students are eating (and thus have their masks off). Accomplishing this will require lunches be held in places beyond the school cafeterias, including outdoor spaces.
I raised two additional issues during the meeting: ventilation and masking. Both have been identified by experts as key to safely returning kids to school buildings. Mr. Onushko, the district’s facilities manager, explained that our current ventilation systems are designed to replace the full volume of air in each room 3 times per hour (3 ACPH), while the current recommendations for ventilation during the pandemic calls for 4-6 ACPH. There are ways to address this, but none of them can be implemented within the next few weeks. In the meantime, the plan is to increase ventilation using windows in classrooms and buses, when weather permits. For masks, there is increasing consensus among experts that their effectiveness is closely tied to the type of material used and the way they are worn. Masks should have at least two layers of tightly-woven fabric, completely cover the nose and mouth, fit snugly against the side of the face without gaps, and include a nose wire or metal strip. Masks should not be made from loosely woven fabric, contain vents or valves, or be worn below the nose. I suggested these standards be made a part of our district’s health and safety plan.
The majority of board members expressed enthusiasm for the plan, even in the absence of changes to address ventilation and masking issues. A formal vote will be taken on March 22. You can watch the presentation and discussion for yourself here; and access the presentation slides here.
Next Year’s Budget
The primary goal of next year’s budget is to at least partially restore some of the cuts that were made last year in the midst of the pandemic. Last night’s presentation and discussion focused on the projected revenues for the district next year. The good news is that district revenues have not suffered the worst-case scenarios that many people feared. The bad news is that, given current cost and revenue projections, the district is still currently facing a $1 million shortfall even with a 3.6% tax hike and maintaining many of the cuts that were made last year. The administration and board will continue to work on these issues between now and when the final budget needs to be approved on June 14.
The discussion last night focused on how these numbers are forecast, the increasing burden state leaders have been pushing onto local taxpayers, and the skyrocketing costs of charter schools. You can watch for yourself here; and access the presentation slides here.