Two major issues took up most of the time at last night’s board meeting: an updated safety plan allowing more in-person instruction during the pandemic, and the district’s long-range fiscal plan.
The board voted unanimously to change the district’s Health and Safety Plan to allow for a return to 5-day-a-week in-person instruction for all students in the elementary and middle schools. Grades K-2 will return March 29; grades 3-5 on April 6; and grades 6-8 at a future date (if I had to guess, in late April). The high school will likely remain in hybrid mode through the end of this school year. Parents will continue to have the option of fully remote instruction at all grade levels.
Social distancing in schools will be reduced to a minimum of 3 feet, except while eating and taking mask breaks where the previous 6-feet minimum will still be maintained. The district will now require masks meet CDC guidelines, including completely covering the nose and mouth, fitting snugly against the face without gaps, having a nose wire, and having two or more layers of breathable fabric. Each school will have appropriate masks available for students who don’t have them, and adhesive wire strips will be made available to students with favorite masks that are not already equipped with them. The heating and air conditioning systems in all district buildings will be set to provide the minimum of 4 full air exchanges per hour (ACPH) recommended for school buildings during the pandemic. And all adults in buildings with 5-day-a-week in-person instruction will have had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. (Note: the Morning Call reported this morning that the district will require ‘double masking’; this is flatly wrong.)
Unfortunately the high school does not have enough space to safely reopen right now. It is the only one of the district’s ten buildings that is over its capacity (by more than 400 students). We learned last night that only about half of the high school students could be safely fed lunch, even if the high school were to convert the gym and other large common spaces to cafeterias. High school students spread covid more easily than younger students too, and so pandemic safety requirements are higher. And the larger number of documented covid cases in the high school would likely lead to repeated temporary closures.
Like every decision made this year, the revised plan is far from ideal. At the same time, I believe that it is the least bad option we have available right now. Scientists have much more knowledge now than they did even a few months ago about how covid spreads and what safety measures are most effective for combatting it. The revised plan takes this new knowledge into account. The plan also balances the increased risk of less social distancing with the increased protection of better mask requirements, better ventilation, and universal vaccine access for adults in school buildings.
Long Range Fiscal Planning
The administration also presented updates to the long range fiscal and capital plan for the district. The highlights of this presentation included:
- The district will have a higher-than-normal fund balance this year, primarily because real estate tax revenue did not fall off as precipitously as predicted. Fund balance can help defray one-time expenses but cannot be used for ongoing costs without creating a structural deficit. The plan is to reserve this extra fund balance– approximately $5.9 million– for future use to improve aging buildings. This will reduce the amount of future borrowing needed at taxpayer expense.
- Historically, East Penn has not had a large enough fund balance according to major credit agencies. This has the potential of increasing district borrowing costs and so is something worth paying attention to.
- The district is paying tuition at charter schools for 476 students right now, up from 369 last year. This change has added $1.1 million in expenses to taxpayers. The district pays charter schools approximately $12,000 per year for regular education students and $24,000 per year for special education students. See my Profiteering in Education During a Pandemic for more information about this issue.
- The most recent federal covid relief plan will provide an estimated $5 million in additional one-time funds to the district, which plans to use them primarily for remediation of learning lost during the pandemic.
The district’s long-range fiscal and capital plan is the most straightforward and accessible document for getting an overall snapshot of the district’s finances. I recommend it as a starting point for anyone who is interested in East Penn’s budget and spending.