school reopening

T/E School Board Approves District School Reopening Plan 9-0

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult for parents, students, teachers and the administration to figure out what they will need to do for an August 31 start to the 2020-21 school year.

With little state input, TESD like every other school district in Pennsylvania, grappled with its reopening plans. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, Gov. Wolf and his administration gave permission to the state’s 500 school districts to restart in-person instruction with a plan approved by the local school board. Sadly, this approach placed the superintendent and school board in a position to make public health decisions where they have no training or expertise.

From masks to buses to recess to sports, the public provided many questions about how the TE School District reopening plan will work.  And based on the questions from the original reopening plan presentation on Monday and then again at the special school board meeting last night, the families in our District are deeply divided as how to proceed. The administration responded easily to some questions from parents but others remained unanswered or with yet-to-be decided responses.

The special school board meeting began Wednesday night at 7:30 PM but unfortunately, the questions from the public did not begin until 11 PM. The ninety minutes of public questions was followed by school board deliberation and vote. In the early hours of Thursday, the school board voted unanimously 9-0 to approve the District school reopening plan as proposed.

In the approved District plan, schools will open on August 31 but with full virtual instruction for at least the first three weeks of school.  There will be a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction.  Parents will be given the option to transition to in-person instruction after Sept. 21 or continue with all virtual instruction.

(For full details about the reopening plan, visit the Tredyffrin Easttown School District website, www.tesd.net ).

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Does T/E Have an Actual School Reopening Plan – A District Elementary School Teacher Weighs In

We learned this week that Gov. Wolf has announced additional restrictions on indoor dining, alcohol consumption and large gatherings in Pennsylvania to regain control after a resurgence of COVID-19 in parts of the state. Under Wolf’s order, indoor events and gatherings of more than 25 people will be prohibited. And businesses will be required to have their employees work remotely to the extent possible.

Although Gov. Wolf did not specifically mention schools in his latest press release, he has previously pushed the schools to reopen but is leaving the details of “how” to the individual school districts.  The president of Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the state teachers union, weighed in this week urging the Governor to begin planning for online instruction in schools for 2020-21 school year.

We know that some school districts have done better jobs with drafting their reopening plans and with including stakeholders in the process than others.   For instance, the Phoenixville Area School District completed its draft plan for reopening schools back in June and posted the plan on its website. During the summer, PASD sent regular updates to parents, conducted multiple surveys and is hosting a series of online meetings to hear from parents and community members on issues related to reopening schools.  Based on the new information from PSEA, Phoenixville’s superintendent immediately videotaped a message for parents and posted it on the website.

Please look at PASD website, www.pasd.org  – it is remarkable, with updated information on their “virtual academy”, videos and superintendent chats with the parents and community. PASD is providing impressive communication and transparency, especially regarding COVID-19.

I am certain that many school districts are providing the same type of public information and updates and only use PASD as an example.  Now please look at TESD website, www.tesd.org  – the most recent item on the page is the video from the June 29 school board meeting.

From parents this week, I learned that the planned Conestoga High School graduation for next week is cancelled. Again, from parents, I learned that several members of the CHS football team (voluntary football practice had started) have tested positive for COVID-19 and that the football is cancelled. From parents, we learned of the special “secret” reopening meeting between the administration and a select group of parents.

As you will read below, I learned about the virtual teacher reopening meetings from an attendee not the school board or the administration.  None of this information is on the District website – there are no updates.

Scheduled for release next week, TESD parents and teachers are anxiously awaiting the specifics of its reopening plans.

In addition to the select (read secret) parent meeting held last week, the District’s administration held three separate virtual meetings  for the elementary, middle and high school teachers respectively.  As was the case with the parent meeting, no agenda was provided and no draft reopening plan was presented to the teachers.  With the debate on whether and how to reopen school buildings, the teachers had anticipated details from the administration to be provided at the meeting.

However, much like the parents the week before, the teachers left the reopening meeting with more questions than answers. With the teacher’s permission, I provide the following notes from a District elementary school teacher who attended the reopening meeting:

Dear Pattye,

We had our reopening meeting today and I wish I could say I feel better after given some info and time to ask questions but I don’t.

The only definite information we were given is that we have to be prepared to be virtual for the fall, but that will only happen if we are in the red phase again. They did tell us virtual learning will have live learning for language arts and math, and they’re working on specials, science, and social studies.

Questions were asked about how many students would be in each room – the questions weren’t answered.

Questions were asked about procedures if a student or teacher gets sick – no plan was given, just that the CDC is notified and they control what actions the school takes.

We asked about teachers who are high risk and what provisions would be made for them – question was not answered.

We did learn that the District is buying masks and face shields, and some desks will be equipped with Plexiglas for students who cannot wear a mask due to health reasons.

They are spacing the desks 3 feet apart right now, and hope to extend that spacer closer to 6 feet if the numbers allow.

They did say the plan is not finished, and they do not have a plan for specials yet.

They were also iffy when we asked about how we would be notified of exposure, saying the CDC would do contact tracing. Currently- we aren’t even notified of lice outbreaks so I’m not confident we’ll get notified about this.

So many questions were left unanswered I’m even more concerned about returning.

We were told that they are really trying to improve the virtual learning plan so it is more like in person school, and that they hope if the plan is good enough more parents will opt in for virtual learning so we can have lower in-school numbers.

In terms of transportation, they are extending the pick-up and drop-off window in hopes that more parents will do that instead of riding the buses. Right now, the recommendation is 2 students per seat, which we already do and seating on the busses cannot be done socially distanced 3-6 feet apart.

Lunches will be in the classrooms and students will get 2 choices- there was no mention of recess.

Really, what I took from the meeting is that the school district is only fully “online” if we’re in red, and they have no idea about anything else.  They did really focus on how we have until August 31 before anything is set in stone and that it’s very possible things may change before then.

I had asked a question on Community Matters about whether the teachers had received summer technology training in advance of the reopening of the schools to be prepared for the fall.  A teacher, who attended the District’s reopening meeting, saw the question and responded as follows:

I read your post today, and one of the questions I saw asked was if teachers had been provided online training to help if the schools are virtual.

As far as I know, no we have not. The question was asked in our teacher reopening meeting if we would be provided distance learning training.  The administration say they may set up some practice times the week of August 24th for teachers to get used to possibly having a camera on them and juggling virtual and in person class at the same time (if the District chooses to go with the integrated plan).  It’s all a mess.

Following up on the teacher’s camera comment, it is my understanding that the District has purchased 500 cameras for the classrooms. The cameras would focus on the teacher and she/he would teach to the students who are in the classroom in addition to the students remotely learning from home.  Having participated in a number of Zoom type meetings over the last several months myself (and with adults!) this kind of technology is not always easy to maneuver.  I cannot imagine the juggling required for a teacher to do both distance learning and in class instruction simultaneously while the camera watches!

It was disappointing to learn from teachers that there was no distance learning training provided this summer. Although some parents and students had a favorable opinion of the remote learning provided in the spring, I think most would suggest that there was room for improvement.  The District needed to dedicate attention to developing and improving online instruction with the teachers.

I question whether TESD actually has a detailed reopening plan – according to the parents who attended the secret meeting and the teachers who attended the virtual reopening meeting; the District is coming up short on the details.

Regarding the coronavirus and the reopening of the schools next month, is the public expected to trust the TE administration and the school board?  Rather than expect communication and transparency from the District, should we adopt a casual “wait and see” attitude.

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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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