Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Tredyffrin Easttown School District

The Results Are In … Two-Thirds Majority (67%) of T/E Parents Commit to Full In-Person Learning!

TESD parents were asked to select full in-person learning or 100% virtual instruction and submit the District’s form by March 3. As we learned at the special board meeting this week, the commitment was important to aid the District in the logistical details (such as classroom setup, bus routes, cafeteria/lunch arrangements, etc.).

The results from the parent’s commitment form are in and posted on the District’s website. Districtwide, the commitment is approximately two-thirds majority (67%) of parents are choosing full in-person learning and approximately one-third (33%) of parents are choosing virtual instruction.

The response to the District is clear — the majority of the parents want their children back in school full-time. Starting March 15, the schools will be open four days a week for instruction (Wednesday virtual only) with the hope for five days a week to follow. Once the schools reopen for full in-person learning the hybrid model will no longer exist although students can remain completely virtual.

T/E parents commitment to full in-person learning is shown in the graph below – Districtwide breakdown and also by individual school:

T/E School Board Votes Unanimously to Reopen Schools!

T/E schools to fully reopen!

At Monday night’s special T/E School Board meeting, the administration presented its revised reopening plan which includes the following:

  • Increased in-person instruction beginning March 15 (contingent on county level transmission rates)
  • A virtual instruction option will be available to families for the remainder of the school year
  • The plan will begin with 4 in-person days with 1 virtual day (Wednesday) each week
  • Potential move to 5 in person days as early as April 19

The school board members weighed in with their comments and question followed by many, many questions from the community regarding the plan. The questions were varied and specific and included asking for details about middle school and high school testing procedures between virtual and in-person learning, cafeteria/food service arrangements, six versus three feet social distancing in the buildings, and the list went on and on. I would suggest that all parents watch the video as soon as its available for administration responses to the specific questions.

Rather than phasing in the school reopening (as done in some of the other school districts), T/E will open all schools starting Monday, March 15. The only caveat to the reopening start date would be if the county covid level transmission rate were to greatly change in the interim.

After four hours of presentation and discussion, the T/E School Board voted unanimously (9-0) to reopen schools.

T/E School Board Member Scott Dorsey Supports Reopening Schools Starting March 15 – How Will the School Board Vote on Monday, March 1?

The public is promised that the T/E School Board will vote on the District’s reopening plan at its virtual meeting on Monday, March 1, 7:30 PM.

After the declaration of “there’s no plan” by school board president Michele Burger less than a week ago, the priority discussion of the District’s reopening plan (and vote) is much anticipated.

The revised reopening plan includes –

  • Increased in-person instruction beginning March 15 (contingent on county level transmission rates)
  • A virtual instruction option will be available to families for the remainder of the school year
  • The plan will begin with 4 in-person days with 1 virtual day each week
  • Potential move to 5 in person days as early as April 1

Click here for reopening plan and meeting agenda.

We get it. Data has shown that remote instruction has impacted students’ progress and that most students are going to learn better in a traditional in-school setting. The science tells us schools can safely reopen and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has asserted that schools are not a major source of COVID-19 transmission.

With social media Facebook groups and lawn signs promoting a full return to the District classrooms, in addition to emails and phone calls to the administration and school board, the pressure is rising to fully reopen the T/E schools. The most optimistic among us hoped the pandemic would be over by now and a sense of relief of a return to normalcy. Fully reopening our schools would help that process.

Currently serving T/E school board member (and former board president) Scott Dorsey publicly voiced his support to fully reopen the schools starting March 15, leaving the following comment on Community Matters:

For the record I am a registered Independent. I have been a registered Independent since October 2019. I voted against the MOU. I voted against policy 1131. I voted against tax hikes last year and will vote against raising taxes this year in the midst of a pandemic. I support in school instructions for our children for four or five days a week starting on March 15. I regularly have made independent votes since I been a board member. I represent forty thousand people of all backgrounds and political persuasions in our community. Please be careful to make generalizations about every board member. -Scott Dorsey

Thanks to Scott for sharing his thoughts — your independent voice (and voting record) on the board will be sorely missed. For the record, Scott has chosen not to seek re-election to the school board.

Other community voices are showing their support to fully reopen the schools. T/E school board candidate Rachel Kill (R) took her reopening case to the national news this week, appearing on America Reports, a Fox news/opinion program. (Click here for video).

The administration and school board also heard from the group, T/E – Support for in-person learning – Giving Parents A Choice this past week. A growing group of nearly 800 TESD families who support full in-person learning starting March 15, the following letter was sent in advance of the school board meeting tomorrow. Please take the time to read.

T/E School Board Meeting Last Night – In the words of the Board President, “We Have No Plan”

The important board meeting last night left many of us with a lot more questions than answers! Starting about 15 minutes late, it was two hours in before there were any comments/questions from the community.

Compounding the situation (and presumably to speed up the process), board president Michelle Burger had the District solicitor read the questions/comments from residents in groups of four or more. Residents take the time to thoughtfully write questions – and this is the District’s response, really unacceptable.

From my vantage point, for the 3-1/2 hours that I watched, it was an impossible meeting. For residents who attended the meeting looking for a straightforward plan forward for their children to return to school, it lacked direction and was no doubt disappointing.

The pandemic has been with us for a year, where is the District’s plan for going forward? Other school districts have worked on multiple scenarios, why haven’t we? At approximately 9:50 PM, the board president commented, “We don’t have a plan”. And therein lies the problem.

In the spring of 2020, the District set up a pandemic reopening group which included parents. What happened to that group, did they ever meet? Where’s that input in the decision-making process? What about the parents survey from last week, was that information considered and included for the meeting last night?

A few of my takeaway points –

(1) No vote on fully reopening the schools would be taken at the meeting

(2) There will be a special meeting on Monday, March 1 dedicated to the school reopening issue

(3) The earliest that schools may fully reopen is March 15.

I have attended school board meetings for years – and without question, last night’s meeting was the most frustrating and void of answers. Parents needed reassurance and to know that their voices have been heard – the school board and administration needed to say that they have been heard. The community needed to hear that you are really working on a plan (not that you have NO plan) and that you are committed to getting the kids back to school.

What is the Reopening Plan for T/E Schools — Kids Need to Come First!

There’s an important school board meeting tonight at 7:30 PM – on the agenda, a discussion on updated Chester County Health Department guidance for the reopening of schools. Priority discussion topics include the District’s “School Instructional Model Plan” – How (and when) will the District fully open schools? (For agenda and instructions on submitting questions and viewing the meeting, click here.)

Many parents are pushing for a return to full in-person learning and data certainly supports the need. There is no argument on the many benefits of resuming full in-person learning — educational, developmental, emotional, and mental health needs, especially for the younger students. It is my understanding that most who support full in-person learning support the virtual model continuing for those not wishing to return to school.  If the District were to move to a full in-person model, presumably the current hybrid option would no longer exist.

According to a national survey by state in Education Week, updated Feb. 19, Gov. Tom Wolf has lifted a ban on all in-person school extracurricular activities and K-12 school sports. The guidance from the state level allows individual school districts to decide whether they will use in-person or remote instruction, or a mix of both.

Although the debate on whether to fully reopen schools should be science based, the issue has sadly taken on a decidedly political spin … pitting parents against parents, parents against teachers, etc.  Everyone wants what is best for the kids, but the kids only have their parents to ensure their needs are met.

Without question, kids (and teachers) deserve safety and parents deserve to have schools that are open, and safe. Neighboring school districts have successfully increased in-person learning, can that safely happen now in T/E?

There are many questions about fully reopening District schools, here’s a few of mine:

  • Will all teachers be vaccinated before the schools open for full in-person learning? If so, that process is completely depended on availability of vaccines.
  • Will the community transmission rates impact reopening of schools? Studies have suggested that schools do not drive community transmission.
  • Is 3-foot socially distanced model acceptable to reopen schools or must 6 feet of physical distance between students, staff, and faculty in school buildings be maintained?
  • Do the District schools have adequate ventilation?
  • Who exactly makes the decision to fully reopen the schools – the administration or the school board?
  • Where does the District teachers union TEEA stand on the fully reopening of schools?

Should Schools Fully Reopen in TESD? For 500 District Families, the Answer is Yes

As the one-year anniversary of school closing approaches, there remains much debate about their reopening. The issue of “when” and “how” to fully reopen the TESD schools is much discussed in the community.

There should be no argument on the many benefits of in-person schools – educational, developmental, emotional and mental health needs. Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine recently stated, “While it is impossible to eliminate the risk of disease transmission entirely within a school setting where community spread is present, recent studies have shown that when mitigation efforts, such as universal masking, physical distancing, and hand hygiene are followed, it may be safer for younger children, particularly elementary grade students, to return to in-person instruction.”

A group of 500 TESD families have come together to support in-person learning and to giving parents a choice. The virtual and hybrid models of learning are available in the District; the group is asking for a full in-person learning option.

The following letter from the group seeking full in-person learning was sent yesterday to the school board and administration. The thoughtful, well-written letter does not seek to pit parents against parents or parents against teachers — but instead makes the point that the District should meet the needs of all students and their parents.

The concerns and questions contained in the letter need to be addressed by the school board and the administration. The request for a meeting with Dr. Gusick regarding a full in-person opening plan will help the discussion move forward. Their request for a virtual school board meeting dedicated to discussing full in-person learning would be helpful to all parents and constituents in the TESD community.

Please take the time to read the letter below:

February 2, 2021

To: Dr. Richard Gusick, TESD School Board, and TESD Pandemic Team

CC: The Chester County Health Department

From: TESD Parents & Constituents for In-Person Learning

Re: Fully Open TESD Schools

We come to you as a group of nearly 500 (and growing) TESD families. We are moms, dads, psychologists, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and more. And we are bipartisan, mask-wearing, socially distant TE constituents who want our schools fully open now.

It has been nearly a year since our kids were sent home for 2 weeks in hopes of returning after Spring Break 2020. Since then, we have ridden the ups and downs with you, knowing the unprecedented nature of this experience. We did so willingly at first, but as we look back at the last 12 months and realize that most of our children have been in person, in school for 30 days or less, we cannot remain silent any longer.

Our question today is: what is our plan? We are the parents of your students and the residents of your district – and yet we are completely in the dark.

Here is our request:

  1. A meeting with Dr. Gusick within the week with a few of our members to discuss a full, in person opening plan (we will be contacting you for this).
  2. A full, in person plan for the rest of the 2020-2021 that offers a choice for a) all in person or b) all virtual delivered publicly ASAP.
  3. A virtual school board meeting within two weeks focused solely on a full, in person plan.

We believe these requests are well within reason, as well as within our Right to Know civil privileges, especially should any information on a full opening plan already exist.

Here is what we know:

  • The PA’s Governor’s office said elementary students should return to as much in-person learning, as possible, by January 25, 2021.
  • The CDC has said that if a school and community’s safety measures are adequate, that there is a “preponderance of evidence” that schools can be more fully open.
  • The CCHD has said if evidence exists that community rates are lowering, schools may transition to a three-foot socially distanced model.
  • Data shows Chester County Covid rates are consistently dropping every week.
  • Evidence is being released nationwide showing that transmission rates in schools are nearly nil – including CHOP Policy Lab who have said children are safer in school.
  • Neighboring districts are successfully moving toward increased in-person instruction:
  • Upper Merion, Spring-Ford, Sounderton, Central Bucks, Upper Dublin, Council Rock, Pennridge, and Wissahickon school districts: back full-time for elementary, with a few back full-time for secondary (or voting to implement full time for secondary in the coming weeks).
  • Radnor: surveyed parents in preparation for next steps and applied for full time elementary approval from the CCHD.
  • Wallingford-Swarthmore: voting in the coming week on their full in person plan. o Private and parochial schools in Chester County: open at a three-foot distance since August 2020 with objective success

What we also know: That TESD parents have no idea if a full, in-person plan even exists for our students for the rest of the 2020-2021.

This is not because we have not asked. We have asked endlessly and in nearly every instance, our emails go ignored. When they aren’t ignored, we quickly realize we have all been delivered the same copy and paste email back, with the “Dear X” line simply changed to make the response appear personal.

We also know we are the only district to have not had a full opening plan on the agenda for our first 2021 school board meeting. Peers from our neighboring school districts were shocked to hear this. We were also made aware that neighboring school districts have been allowing parents to join board meetings by video, so they can ask their own questions. TE has only allowed us to email in our questions so they can maybe be read by one of your representatives.

Please make no mistake, our group comes to you optimistic and hopeful to work together. We believe in the safety measures TESD has already put into place: you have succeeded keeping kids safe in school and we acknowledge the hard work and logistics that come with that effort.

Our group also supports our teachers. Parents and teachers have been pitted against one another in our nation’s discourse on opening schools and must not allow that narrative to continue. TESD parents know teachers have been given an impossible job and yet, many of our teachers and principals have been telling us for months they want students back. As parents, we know it is our responsibility to do what is asked of us at home and in our community in order to keep teachers safe. We believe we have already shown you we can be trusted.

TESD can no longer be a “great district” simply because of its staff and students. It has to be great because of our School Board and administrator’s willingness to work authentically with parents. The breakdown between your relationship with us has never been more dire, but it can be repaired – you just have to communicate with us.

Quite simply, we must move forward. We can all agree that our children have collectively sacrificed enough – enough for us and for you. It is time we collectively stand up for them.

Thank you and we look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

TESD Parents & Constituents for In-Person Learning

T/E Parents, Teachers & Administrators: FREE Inclusion, Diversity & Equity Program Starts This Week – “We All Want to be Included”

I was contacted by Maggie Gaines about an upcoming FREE educational inclusion and diversity series for parents, teachers and administrators. A District resident, Maggie is one of the leaders of BUILD T/E and a mother of two, including first-grader Margot, who has Down syndrome. (You may recall, the District made national headlines last year when the police were called about a supposed “threat” Margot made to her kindergarten Special Ed teacher.)

Inclusion, diversity and equity benefit students by exposing them to each other. They may find that they have more in common with other kids than they thought and is important for kids with and without disabilities.

If you are a parent of a child with disabilities and learning differences (or a teacher or administrator) you will want to consider this opportunity. The PA Inclusive Collective series consists of four 90-minute sessions through the month of February presented by three of the foremost leaders in inclusive education. These sessions would typically cost $100 per person but with grant and resource funding are FREE! However, you do need to sign up to participate.

For details, please click here for flyer and read the description from Maggie Gaines below. If you have questions, please contact Maggie directly via email at maggiegaines7@gmail.com.

We all want to be included.

The COVID-19 pandemic and school closures have hit students throughout the country hard. This is especially true of students with disabilities and learning differences, who have often been left out and left behind throughout this crisis. Many of these students are not only struggling academically, but they’re also suffering socially with little, if any, contact with their typically developing peers.

That’s why BUILD T/E is collaborating with parent groups from Radnor, Lower Merion and Methacton to offer the PA Inclusion Collective, a four-part Zoom series to bring equity and inclusion to our T/E school community. These district wide parent groups together represent families of more than 3,500 special education students.

Whether you have a child with a disability, learning difference or not, creating an inclusive school community benefits EVERYONE. It allows students of all abilities to develop friendships, peer models, problem solving skills, positive self image and respect for others. It can also lead to greater acceptance of differences among family members and neighbors.

Sponsorship from these parent groups in addition to a grant from The Radnor Educational Foundation has made it possible to offer this series for FREE to all families in Pennsylvania. It’s also free to all teachers, administrators, related service providers, and staff in each of the four sponsoring districts.

The series will be live on Feb. 3, Feb 10, Feb. 17 and Feb. 24 from 6 PM-7:30 PM. Sessions will be recorded and available for a limited time, so if the time or date doesn’t work, you can catch up later.

T/E School District, Radnor, Lower Merion, and Methacton families and educators can register for FREE at Inclusiveschooling.com/PA-zoom.

Educators from other school districts may also join the event. They may register here.

T/E School Board Adopts Budget Resolution, Tax Increase 3% or less — Will 2021 Mark the 17th Year of Tax Increases?

Between the raging pandemic and the horror witnessed in our nation’s capital last week, focus on other matters is hard to come by these days.

The long, dark year of 2020 may have ended but January continues to bring new challenges. Since the T/E School Board meeting of January 4, I have received numerous communications from residents regarding the District’s 2021-22 preliminary budget. The school board voted 5-4 to approve a resolution certifying that the tax increase for the 2021-22 budget will be 3% or lower. The school board will vote on the final budget in June. Should the District’s final budget include any tax increase, it would mark the 17th straight year of tax increase to its residents.

It was stated that the District is facing a $9.3 million deficit for the 2021-22 budget and therefore requires the increase in property taxes. Think about it – for seventeen straight years, we have received an increase in our taxes. We receive our annual tax increase, yet the District seems to magically have a budget surplus. And to be honest, I have never understood what happens to those surplus dollars – where exactly does that “found money” go?

In June 2020, the community outcry over the tax increase fell on deaf ears. At the board meeting, it took the District solicitor 1-1/2 hours to read into public record all the resident’s comments and far less time for the school board to ignore! In the midst of Covid-19 when other school districts put a freeze on tax increases (including Unionville Chadds Ford School District) our school board approved the 2020-21 budget which included a 2.6% tax increase, the elimination of ERB testing and gave salary increases and bonuses for administration, supervisory and confidential employees.

So, what exactly has changed in 2021?  The Covid-19 crisis rages, and we all continue to suffer. Residents have lost their jobs, and every segment of our economy, including local small businesses continue to feel the effects of the pandemic.

Will the proposed 2021-22 budget include a transparent review of all expenditures and impact strategies? As an example – at the Education committee meeting last week, we learned that the District had chosen a new K-8 math curriculum program for the next six years at a cost of $703K. What I find troubling is no whether the District “needs” the math curriculum but rather where was the public comment regarding its selection? With the District’s stated $9.3 million deficit in the 2021-22 budget, the decision-making process regarding the $700K expenditure is deserving of an explanation.

In 2021, many of us are in worse financial shape than we were pre-Covid. We are learning that various school boards in Pennsylvania have decided to hold the line and not increase property taxes. Other PA school districts are utilizing a variety of savings solutions such as freezing wages for its employees and scaling back or putting projects on hold in their 2021-22 budget development process.

It appears that 2021 will mark seventeenth straight year our taxes will go up in the Tredyffrin Easttown School District.

The 2021-22 budget will be discussed at tonight’s January 11 Finance Committee meeting at 7 PM. The meeting will be held virtually, and a link will be available on the District website, www.tesd.net by 6 PM. To view the Finance Committee meeting agenda, click here.

Will Conestoga High School Students Return to Hybrid Learning Tomorrow?

As the snowstorm looms today, the clock is ticking for the District’s high school students return to the classroom. If you re-read Dr. Gusick’s message from Sunday, December 13, Conestoga HS is remote learning only through today. The District’s plan is for the high school to return to hybrid teaching starting tomorrow, December 17.

But here’s the question, will the District have sufficient CHS teachers for in-person teaching tomorrow? It is my understanding that 54 teachers at the high school were out on Monday. Has the teachers union opposition to in-person now changed?

It is unclear as to why the safety of the teachers in the classroom is focused primarily on the high school. Shouldn’t any health concerns associated with in-person teaching be District-wide and include the those teaching at the two middle schools and five elementary schools.

The widespread support and concern that many CHS students have shown this week for their teachers is strong. In the past, only occasionally have students responded to Community Matters posts yet a review of the latest comments indicates the safety of teachers in the classrooms has struck a chord with many.

The District students took to social media and created a Change.org petition titled “Give teachers the option to teach virtually or physically”. The opening paragraph of the petition reads as follows,

This petition is in support of the teachers’ petition to boycott the school with their sick days because the Tredyffrin Easttown School District requires all teachers to go physically to school while students have the option to go hybrid or virtual. The primary goal is to force the school board to allow the option for both physical and virtual teaching for teachers.

In a matter of a few days, the petition has already received over 1,000 signatures of support.

Regarding the District’s return to hybrid teaching, TEEA union president Amy Alvarez read a strongly worded statement of opposition and asked questions of the school board at its meeting last week. Without responding to Ms. Alvarez, the school board voted unanimously (9-0) to return to hybrid teaching. Why did no member of the school board answer the union president?

No one likes to feel marginalized or not heard. Whether it’s a resident asking a question at a school board meeting, or in this case, the president of the teachers union, all deserve a response. School board, silence is not a response. The topic of the question does not matter, communication is expected, and answers are deserved.

There’s another week of school before winter break — will all students return to hybrid learning tomorrow, December 17? We understand that these are unprecedented times, but communication is critical. School board, our community needs leadership from you.

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A couple of notes: Since my previous post, I have been inundated with a firestorm of calls, emails and many, many comments. However, there are nearly 50 comments that were not posted because sadly their content was abusive, offensive or harassing.

In addition, the managerial board of The Spoke, Conestoga’s news source released the following statement:

T/E Teachers Union “Sick-Out” Threat Closes Conestoga High School

This past week, the TE School Board voted 9-0 in favor of returning the District to hybrid instruction starting Monday, December 14. Students who selected the hybrid option would start returning to school for in-person instruction – the regular hybrid schedule would resume for all students in grades K-12.

I watched the last school board meeting and Amy Alvarez, TEEA union president and Conestoga High School chemistry teacher delivered a strongly worded statement opposing the return to hybrid instruction. Neither the school board nor administration responded to Ms. Alvarez comments and … then with little discussion, the board voted unanimously to reopen the schools on Monday, December 14.

Having personally been on the receiving end of a phone call from Ms. Alvarez in the summer, I was not surprised by what came next. By mid-week, I had heard from several people about an email to teachers from the union leadership, calling for a District “sick out” starting Monday, December 14.

On Friday, December 11, the District sent out its T/E News which confirmed that return to hybrid instruction for Monday, December 14. Additionally, all K-12 sports, including practices and competitions, are canceled until January 4. And all in-person extracurricular activities are suspended (although the activities can still be held virtually).

However, with the threat of teachers calling in sick for the coming week, TESD administration abruptly changed course at 7 PM on Sunday night. Parents received notice from Dr. Gusick and the following is posted on the District website that Conestoga High School will not re-open tomorrow, Monday, December 14:

So … what is the takeaway here – the power of the union! The level of clout that the teachers union has over the District’s administration and school board is remarkable. The T/E school board voted unanimously days ago to reopen the schools, so what exactly changed in the last two days?

Without question, we are living in unprecedented times which makes communication and transparency from our elected officials all the more important. Residents and taxpayers deserve to know what is going on in our school district and who is really in charge.

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