COVID-19

As TESD Plans to Reopen Schools, Will the Teachers Return to the Classroom or Is the Risk Too Great?

Next week, the community will learn the specifics of the reopening plan for the TESD schools. Scheduled for release the week of July 20 with school board vote to occur the following week, the public will have a short window to review and provide feedback on the proposed reopening plan.

In advance of the public release of the reopening plan, we learned that last week the District leadership held a meeting with a select group of parents. In my last blog post, some have taken issue with my interpretation of the meeting — by my calling it a “secret” meeting and attendees as “handpicked”.

For the record, I will stand on the words in my post, the meeting attendees were handpicked and individually invited; the criteria for selection unclear.  Because the administration and/or school board presented no notice of the reopening meeting, provided no public agenda and repeatedly asked attendees not to videotape and to keep information to private “is”, in my opinion, the hallmark of secrecy.

From a transparency and communication standpoint, wouldn’t it have made more sense for the District to videotape the parent reopening meeting and then provide the link on its website for all those interested?

Moving on … Coronavirus cases keep increasing at alarming rates across the country and this comes as our District is wrestling with “how” to reopen the schools. Making these decisions is not easy. There’s the issue of safety, and that’s complicated because students, teachers and parents all have different Covid-19 risk levels.  With the upcoming release of the District’s reopening plan, parents debate whether they send their children physically back to school or take the distance learning option.

Available medical research seems to indicate that students would be at lower risk than adults for serious health problems related to the coronavirus, leading to concern for the risk teachers would take returning to the classroom. Considering teacher safety (in addition to the students), especially those who are older, medically vulnerable or who may be afraid of putting a family member at risk must be another priority in school reopening discussion.

Did the District’s newly formed Pandemic Committee seek input from the teachers in drafting the reopening plan– were the teachers engaged in the process?  It is my understanding that two teachers were invited to the parent reopening meeting last week – unclear if they attended as TEEA (teachers union) representatives. Although I did not hear that these teachers participated in the reopening discussion, someone who attended the meeting did offer that other teaching staff (substitutes?) would be hired for the daily lunch period when schools reopen.

Has the District involved TEEA involved in the decision-making process for reopening? As preparation for the fall, was there online distance technology seminars held this summer for the teachers? In advance of the draft reopening plan announcement, did the administration schedule a special meeting for the teachers, similar as was held for the parents?

At the June school board meeting, the public learned that Dr. Chris Groppe was to head the TESD Pandemic Committee, part of the state required reopening process. Although the District’s announcement did not include the membership list of the committee, the additional eight members with their specific responsibilities, are as follows:

  • Jeanne Pocalycko, Personnel matters
  • Wendy Towle, Instructional plan development
  • Mike Szymendera, Technology implementation
  • Oscar Torres, Equity monitoring and liaison with families in need
  • Ellen Turk, School safety
  • Mark Cataldi, Liaison with principals and school board
  • Art McDonnell, Operations and facilities
  • Chris Connelly, Communications

We all know that reopening of schools is not simply a matter of turning a key. Will the District’s reopening plan next week include input from all stakeholders – the superintendent, administrators, Pandemic Committee, principals, teachers (and TEEA), school support staff (including TENIG), school board, parents, school nurses and psychologists and state health officials?

In closing, I saw the following posted on social media today – a thought-provoking list of questions as reopening plans develop with teachers returning to the classrooms. My understanding is the list was written by a teacher (and a parent) in Hawaii but is applicable everywhere.

  • If a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, are they required to quarantine for 2-3 weeks? Is their sick leave covered, paid?
  • If that teacher has 5 classes a day with 30 students each, do all 150 of those students need to then stay home and quarantine for 14 days?
  • Do all 150 of those students now have to get tested? Who pays for those tests? Are they happening at school? How are the parents being notified? Does everyone in each of those kids’ families need to get tested? Who pays for that?
  • What if someone who lives in the same house as a teacher tests positive? Does that teacher now need to take 14 days off of work to quarantine? Is that time off covered? Paid?
  • Where is the district going to find a substitute teacher who will work in a classroom full of exposed, possibly infected students for substitute pay?
  • Substitutes teach in multiple schools. What if they are diagnosed with COVID-19? Do all the kids in each school now have to quarantine and get tested? Who is going to pay for that?
  • What if a student in your kid’s class tests positive? What if your kid tests positive? Does every other student and teacher they have been around quarantine? Do we all get notified who is infected and when? Or because of HIPAA regulations are parents and teachers just going to get mysterious “may have been in contact” emails all year long?
  • What is this stress going to do to our teachers? How does it affect their health and well-being? How does it affect their ability to teach? How does it affect the quality of education they are able to provide? What is it going to do to our kids? What are the long-term effects of consistently being stressed out?
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Is there a safe way to open TE Schools on August 31? What will our schools look like (or what should they look like)?

To go back or not to go back – that’s the question on many T/E School District parents’ minds as we inch closer to August 31 and the beginning of a new school year.

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the District into a crash course in online education. And from what I have heard from parents, “remote learning” did not go well, to put it politely. Parents did a yeoman’s job in supporting the learning needs of their children while trying to balance their many other responsibilities during this very challenging time. However, it appears that many kids did not get close to what they needed during the shutdown and parents have reported student progress stalled significantly during that time period.

Distance learning placed a strain on all involved – it’s seriously second-best to real, in-person instruction. Ask any teacher, student or – maybe most of all – parent who tried to make it work.  Keeping kids home and teaching them remotely is feasible for the short term. It is not, for the vast majority of families, a state of affairs that can continue indefinitely without causing serious strain. Most households simply aren’t set up to home school for extended periods of time. Remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person teaching and by most accounts; America’s great remote-learning experiment was a failure.

Too much learning has already been lost because of the abrupt school shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Students have lost ground and schools need to reopen. More kids will do better if schools reopen than if they continue online-only classes.

From the TESD website, “At the end of the school year, the District conducted a survey of parents, students in grades 5-12 and teachers to collect feedback on their experiences during spring 2020 distance learning and their thoughts related to future programming. … The District received 2,822 responses to the survey from verified parents, 743 responses from students and 282 responses from teachers.”

The TESD Distance Learning Survey results dated June 8 indicated that of the parents responding to the survey, 66% were interested in their children returning to school when it reopened (assuming safety protocol is followed), 18% preferred home schooling and 17% were undecided.  As the countdown nears for schools to reopen, it would be curious to know where parents currently stand on the issue.

The New York Times recently reported that, “New research suggests that by September, most students will have fallen behind where they would have been if they had stayed in classrooms, with some losing the equivalent of a full school years’ worth of academic gains. … Racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps will most likely widen because of disparities in access to computers, home internet connections and direct instruction from teachers.”

As parents anxiously wait for schools to reopen, the biggest questions on everyone’s mind are how that can happen safely. At the last TESD school board meeting on June 29, the public was told that the District was working on reopening details for the 2020-21 school year; and that there was a plan for students to return to school or to continue to learn remotely.

Although specifics on the reopening plan were minimal at the June 29 meeting, the administration confirmed they were working on the details and that the plan would be available by the July school board meeting.  It was then surprising to learn that the administration held a preemptive secret meeting this past week on Thursday, July 9 at Valley Forge Elementary School regarding its reopening plans. Although a select group of school district parents was invited to attend the small meeting, the criteria for their inclusion was unclear. TE school board president Michele Burger also attended the meeting.

The special meeting to discuss reopening plans was not listed on the District website, no agenda was published and attendees were asked not to videotape.  However, one of the parents who attended the secret meeting provided a Zoom online update for Valley Forge Middle School parents later in the day (with an estimated fifty interested parents logging in). It would be helpful if parents who attended the in-person meeting (or via Zoom online) could provide us with the District’s update on its reopening plans.

With many parents anxious for updates on the District’s plans – you have to wonder why the secrecy. We know the reopening of TESD schools will follow the guidelines of the state as set forth by CDC (Center for Disease Control) — just not sure, that hand-selecting attendees for a secret meeting was the state’s intended process or approach.  Inclusivity, communication and transparency are critical if the District is to safely reopen its schools.

How many of you remember the transportation fiasco when schools opened last August? With new delayed school start times, parents endured late buses, repeated changes in schedules, poor or non-existent communication from the transportation department and/or administration and some of those problems lingered until December. The TESD community cannot afford a similar outcome if the District schools are to successfully reopen on August 31.

To reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic is extremely challenging and parents need reassurance that the classrooms are safe. The “Devil’s in the details” and how well the District’s administration and school board communicate the reopening details is key to success!

From the TESD website is the following schedule regarding the District’s reopening plans:

Week of July 20, 2020  TESD will present a draft of the fall reopening plan and will provide additional opportunities for input from stakeholders.

Week of July 27, 2020  The Board will schedule a special virtual meeting to consider approval of the final fall reopening plan.

Early August 2020  Families will make the decision and commitment either to attend school following health and safety guidelines or to participate in distance learning. School officials will begin implementation of the Board-approved plan.

August 31, 2020  Scheduled First Day of School for grades 1-12.

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All T/E Schools Closed Starting Friday, March 13 Through at Least Thursday, March 26!

Tredyffrin/Easttown School DistrictI just received notification from the T/E School District with the following letter from Dr. Gusick, the District’s Superintendent — All T/E Schools are closed starting tomorrow Friday, March 13 through at least Thursday, March 26. In addition all school related activities are cancelled.

March 12, 2020

Dear T/E Staff and Families,

I am writing to share that all T/E schools will be closed and all school-related activities will be suspended beginning Friday, March 13 through at least Thursday, March 26.

This afternoon Governor Wolf announced that all schools in Montgomery County will be closed for two weeks and he discouraged non-essential travel within Montgomery County.  As you know, the communities of Montgomery County border the T/E School District. Approximately 25% of our teaching staff, in addition to many members of our support staff, reside in Montgomery County. To remain in keeping with the spirit of the Governor’s containment action, TESD employees who are residents of Montgomery County should not report to work. As a result, we will be unable to operate our schools with such a limited number of staff. It is now necessary for us to move to the Closing component of our response plan.

Because Chester County is not in the containment area in the Governor’s declaration, we are able to make our schools accessible to students and families on Friday, March 13.  Please feel welcome to visit your child’s school tomorrow during normal hours to gather anything you may need.  A Child’s Place has informed us that they will email families directly with specifics regarding their program’s operations.

Earlier today, I sent a framework for a distance learning rollout to TESD students.  Based on today’s information, we will revisit the timing of distance learning implementation and send a revised plan to staff and families tomorrow.  I will be participating in a virtual meeting with the Secretary of Education tomorrow morning, where I hope to learn more information.  The impact of this closing on the last day of school will also be shared in a later communication.

Today Governor Wolf also provided guidance for the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in response to COVID-19. In his address, he made further statewide recommendations to mitigate the spread of illness:

  • Suspending large gatherings, events, conferences of 250 individuals or more, and
  • Limiting travel to recreational activities like gyms, movie theaters and shopping malls

If you have concerns about yourself or a member of the TESD community being exposed to COVID-19, please contact your primary healthcare provider. Additionally, the CCHD now has a self-reporting online tool available on their webpage.  We have also created a District email account, HealthInfo@tesd.net, to share questions, comments, or concerns related to COVID-19 as it relates to the District. We will need some time as an administrative staff to sort through some of the major questions we expect many of you to have.

These are extraordinary times, and I make this decision after careful consideration of an array of alternatives.  I do believe this is the right decision for our District at this time, and I trust that the strength of our community will continue to shine brightly as we manage this crisis together.

Sincerely,

Dr. Richard Gusick
Superintendent of Schools

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