Derry Area School District outlined its initial 2020-21 reopening plans in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic during Thursday’s regular school board meeting.
A presentation by superintendent Eric Curry covered 10 areas of focus to keep students and staff members safe in light of the pandemic, including items related to: cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting; social distancing; learner and staff health; training for understanding and compliance; learning models; brick and mortar; remote learning; hybrid model; transportation, and examples of temporary exclusions.
“We’re hoping for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst,” he said.
The reopening plan includes a baseline for guidelines related to holding classes while ensuring social distancing, transportation measures aimed at providing the same level of protection as in classes, and education options that may include in-person learning, remote learning and a weekly “hybrid” mix that combines both remote and in-person learning.
Curry said any reopening plans are fluid based on new information coming from state health officials.
The district’s goal is to unveil its final reopening plans at a work session meeting slated for July 30.
Following Thursday’s presentation, Curry read a letter addressed to district parents.
The letter will be mailed to parents and is currently available for viewing on the district website.
Curry said there are at least three potential learning models that may be used next school year, including brick and mortar, remote learning and hybrid learning.
Brick and mortar learning — or in-person learning at the district’s three school buildings — is what Curry and other school administrators are hoping eventually becomes a reality.
“This is our desire, to get our kids and our staff back just as it was (in March) and get them back to school, because we know that’s the best environment for our kids to learn in,” Curry said. “That’s the best-case scenario at this point in time.”
However, based on current social distancing guidelines, Curry cautioned that the district is “limited by space and we’re not sure we have enough open classrooms and/or teachers to fully return to brick and mortar if the current (Pennsylvania Department of Education) guidelines for health and safety stay in place.”
Remote learning this coming school year, Curry noted, would be similar to what was used by students and teachers after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all Pennsylvania K-12 schools to close in March.
“Obviously, we’ve learned a lot since this was dropped on us in (March),” he said. “But we’re looking at a similar situation from what we had in the spring, if we have to go to remote learning. This is the worst-case scenario for us.”
Remote instruction, Curry said, will be able to be done in real time with a teacher instructing or through a mode where teachers are uploading information for students into Google Classroom.
Curry said Derry Area is awaiting grant funding that will aid in the purchase of Chromebooks for all district students.
“We will make sure to accommodate all students who need a device,” he said. “That was one of the things that was (made) very loud and clear, especially from our elementary parents. From a technology standpoint, we did not have the resources available to make Chromebooks available to all of our kids in the elementary school, and that was extremely problematic. That’s one of the things we’re working on, (and grant funding) will help us purchase Chromebooks.”
Hybrid learning is a combination of brick and mortar and remote learning. While nothing is finalized, proposed hybrid plans call for the separation of students into two groups — A and B — who would attend school in person on opposite days.
“This would allow us to accommodate social distancing but to also continue the instruction on a daily basis,” Curry said.
Under the hybrid plan, students would have two days of in-school instruction and two days of remote learning with their assigned groups. All students would have remote learning on Wednesdays, Curry noted, to allow for the building “to be disinfected and deep cleaned before the next group of students comes in.” A possible hybrid schedule discussed at last week’s meeting included classes for Group A on Mondays and Tuesdays and Group B on Thursdays and Fridays.
Maintaining social distancing is another challenge of the reopening plan, Curry said.
“We’re looking at appropriate ways to distance between our learners,” he said. “... Obviously, 6 feet of space for social distancing does create some problems with the limited space we have in classrooms.”
While Curry said the district will make sure to have masks available for students, district officials still aren’t sure what the latest reopening guidelines will say regarding mask-wearing in classrooms.
“I’m really concerned about how kids can be expected to wear a mask all day, especially kindergartners and first-graders,” he said. “One of the things that is pretty clear is we can ask our kids and our staff to wear masks as they’re changing classes and might be in common areas together.”
“One of the biggest questions we have is if — and when — we have a student or staff member test positive for COVID, what is our response going to be?” Curry added. “We’re still working on that.”
One of the largest communal areas within the district is school cafeterias, and Curry said Derry Area officials are working on guidelines on how to safely serve meals and provide a clean lunchroom between shifts. Other communal areas — such as lobbies, gymnasiums and large group instruction rooms — will also be a primary focus of the district.
Curry said the district is also working on plans for deep cleaning and improved ventilation, where needed, within district buildings.
“We’re going to make sure there is an increased protocol for cleaning the classrooms on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re looking at ways we can increase airflow for better ventilation, as the weather permits. If you’ve been on the second floor of the middle school recently, it gets pretty warm up there at times.”
Having students maintain social distancing guidelines while riding buses is another component of the reopening plan. Curry said the district is working with its longtime bus contractor, Smith Bus Company of Burrell Township, on what a pandemic-era transportation plan may look like.
Curry said regular bus transportation will be provided to and from students’ homes, just as was the case under normal circumstances. Buses will also be provided to the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center (EWCTC) in Derry Township, while district activity buses will be available as well.
“One of the big problems that arises with this, though, is we’ve been pretty lenient on issuing bus passes for alternate stops,” Curry said. “So you can imagine that if we have to start bringing one group Monday and Tuesday and another group Thursday and Friday, making alternative stops is going to be extremely limited, if at all.”
The district’s reopening plan also puts a temporary hold on many traditional school events such as assemblies and concerts, along with not allowing classroom visitors from the community or Derry Area’s 300-plus school volunteers to enter school buildings during the pandemic. Curry said events such as back to school nights would be held virtually.
“We’re going to have situations that we know are good for learning that we’re just not going to be able to do until we’re up and running 100%,” he said. “... We’re going to be extremely limited in the types of things we’re able to do.”