The Central Dauphin School District on Monday voted to phase in a return to five-day in-classroom instruction. The vote to gradually reopen schools came amid resounding appeals from teachers and parents concerned that it is too early to return students and teachers to school amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By a 5-3 vote, the school board voted to allow kindergarten through fifth-grade students to return to in-classroom instruction beginning Oct. 13. Middle school students would return roughly the first week of November to allow the district to beef up custodial staff, and high school students would return after the new year.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Amy Lightner, a K-5 data specialist in the district and a district representative for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. “You have 20-plus members of the community who stand up to say they are concerned. They don’t want to go back five days a week and they still vote to send back to elementary school students where space is very limited.”
The decision was made just hours after the district announced that a staff member had tested positive for Covid-19. WHTM 27 was reporting that other teachers may have been potentially exposed during a training session last Monday at West Hanover Elementary. A district official at the meeting confirmed that the new case brings to six the number of positive cases.
“I’m concerned for students. I’m concerned for the members,” Lightner said. “It’s coming. It’s hitting closer to home. It’s close to my circle. It’s in my reality now and that’s scary. It could be coming home to my family.”
The school board voted down a motion to postpone the vote and reconvene in November. The board also did not consider the proposed option of having a four-day week.
Like scores of other districts across the state, Central Dauphin – one of central Pennsylvania’s largest school districts – this fall rolled out a hybrid education model that divided students into two groups. Each group has been attending in-classroom classes on certain days of the week and learning remotely from home for the remainder of the week.
The hybrid program had dramatically reduced the number of students in the school buildings at one time.
Over the past few weeks, though, some parents increasingly called on the district to return to in-classroom instruction. They said their children’s education was being compromised with the hybrid instruction model.
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On Monday, nearly two dozen teachers spoke before the board collectively outlining a litany of concerns about the challenges posed by a return to in-classroom instruction.
Mike Williams, one of the district’s representatives to PSEA, noted that the overwhelming majority of teachers, counselors, nurses and other professional staff are in favor of remaining in the hybrid model.
Teaching in the hybrid model, he noted, was difficult and inconvenient but it is necessary to keep transmission rates down.
“In my classroom my students will not be able to social distance,” Williams said, noting the number of students and the size of the room.
Faculty who attended the training session last Monday and may have been potentially exposed have been asked to quarantine for 14 days. District officials said all other students will report for instruction as scheduled.
Several dozen teachers rallied ahead of the school board meeting on Monday, calling on the district and the board to keep the hybrid model intact.
During the meeting, a number of teachers excoriated the school board for even considering returning staff and students back to five days in the classroom. Dauphin County has been designated by state health officials to be in the moderate transmission category.
Teachers noted that the hybrid model allows for easy adherence to guidelines from state and federal health officials. They said the model allows them to give more attention to students who need it.
“Of course I would like to have full, in-person instruction if this was a normal school year, but this is not a normal school year,” Williams said. “It’s going to be quite challenging and more difficult to do so in in-person instruction. But what really matters is prioritizing the health and safety of staff and students. That is best accomplished with the hybrid model.”
Lauri Lebo, a spokeswoman for the PSEA, noted the dueling challenges that teachers face.
On the one hand, she said, teachers are reporting being overwhelmed with the demand of the various instruction models that they have to negotiate on a daily basis.
“We are seeing a lot of teachers who are exhausted. Literally exhausted from trying to deal with essentially three jobs,” Lebo said. “Teaching in class but also teaching remote and at the same time; and then thirdly teaching online kids who aren’t necessarily a part of the class. They are trying to keep with the demands and struggling and working ridiculous hours.”
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Lebo said some teachers have ended up in the hospital with exhaustion.
“This is a struggle,” she said. “But what do teachers want? They want to be safe. They want the kids to be safe. They don’t want this to spread to the community.”
Lebo said school districts need the federal government to step up and provide support for safety programs.
“We need funding so they can do more social distancing and protect themselves and their students,” she said. “Our federal government still hasn’t done that. It’s vitally important.”
Kyle Stevens, a Central Dauphin High School senior who started a petition, implored the board to vote to keep the hybrid model in place.
He said most students are concerned about their safety and even though he has struggled without the structure of school, like his peers, he has the motivation and discipline to meet the rigors of online learning.
He said he worries about the toll returning to school amid the pandemic will have on the mental health of students.
“If we open prematurely, we will have to shut down,” Stevens said. “That will make it harder and more strenuous on the mental health of students.”
Melissa Andrews, a 16-year district teacher, chided the board for not having engaged teachers in the process.
“I wish you would have asked us,” she said. “I want my students back. I want all of us to feel safe but I want students and families to be safe and data shows this area is not ready.”
She implored the district and board to follow the recommendations of health officials. She noted that the majority of her students are students of color, and pointed out that minority communities have been disproportionately hit with the adverse impacts of the pandemic.
“We are all making great sacrifices,” Andrews said. “We make sacrifices because that is what we are called to do. It may not be convenient but it is right. Why is this is a debate? This is not complicated. It is black and white. There is clear and present danger for all of us.”
Students and teachers are required to wear masks while in school. Officials noted that it’s not an option but an order.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health reported 672 new positive coronavirus cases Monday, raising the statewide total to 164,207. This is the first time the daily reported numbers have hit under 1,100 since last week.