Derry Area School District moved one step closer to in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as the school board approved the district’s phased school opening health and safety plan during a special meeting Thursday.

Nearly 75 parents and community members were registered to attend Thursday’s meeting, which was held in the middle school auditorium. To be in compliance with the state’s current guidelines on social gatherings, some viewed the meeting from a classroom television while about 25 guests sat socially distanced in the auditorium.

The health and safety plan will be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and will be available for viewing on the district website at www.dasd.us. The board expects to approve full instruction plans for the coming school year — including the district’s intentions to be open for in-person learning five days per week starting Aug. 31 — at next Thursday’s regular school board meeting.

Superintendent Eric Curry said the district’s 57-page health and safety plan is largely in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state guidelines. Derry Area, however, did form a 24-person pandemic team consisting of “district administrators, staff, parents, community members and medical professionals.” Some of those individuals played a role in drafting the health and safety parameters, others will handle response efforts in the event of a confirmed positive coronavirus case of exposure, and several involved are taking on both plan development and response roles.

“I’ve seen seen a lot of challenges and successes in my career and never have I experienced anything like what we as a community, as a state and as a school district are currently a part of,” Curry said. “There’s been extreme frustration and many of the same emotions our community members feel. Your school administrators and staff have the same types of frustrations.

“The reality is, as much as we’d like to have more defined guidance from our state leaders, that doesn’t exist.”

Derry Area’s plan to return to in-person learning — also known as brick and mortar — was spurred by putting health and safety guidelines in place and from the results of about 1,800 district families that responded to a survey regarding instruction preferences for the 2020-21 school year.

According to the survey results, Curry said currently 72.4% of families want their children back in school five days per week, with 19.7% of families wanting their children to take part in Derry Area’s iTrojan online program, a virtual option with district teachers following the same seamless curriculum as taught during in-person instruction.

Another option discussed at last month’s meeting, hybrid learning — in which students would have two days of in-school instruction, two days of remote learning with their assigned groups and remote learning on Wednesdays for all students — received interest from 69% of parents.

Curry noted that a local panel of physicians and pediatricians all recommended a full return to in-person learning. One physician assisting county school districts with their health and safety plans, Curry said, told districts school is able to return because the positivity rate of county coronavirus cases have dropped, even as case totals have increased.

According to the district’s health and safety plan, if the current state guidelines remain in place, students and staff are required to wear face coverings anytime the recommended guidelines for social distancing (6 feet) cannot be accommodated. This includes, but is not limited to, when on school buses, in large gatherings outside of the classroom, while transitioning between classrooms, and while entering and/or exiting the building.

Students and staff would not be required to wear face coverings while seated in the classroom where social distancing can be maintained with a minimum 6 feet, unless there is an order from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and/or Pennsylvania Department of Education stating otherwise.

Students and staff, per the plan, will be provided face covering breaks throughout the day and should maintain a distance of 6 feet during these face covering breaks. In addition, students and staff will be allowed to remove their face coverings when eating or drinking when spaced at least 6 feet apart, when seated at desks or assigned work spaces at least 6 feet apart, when engaged in any activity at least 6 feet apart or wearing a face covering creates an unsafe condition in which to operate equipment or execute a task. Any student who cannot wear a mask or face shield because of a medical condition would not be required to wear face coverings.

“I want to emphasize in full transparency that we do not have enough open classrooms or teachers to fully return to brick and mortar if the guidelines stay the same, without being creative with our teaching staff and learning program offerings while requiring (children to wear) face masks,” Curry said.

Students and staff who have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher and/or symptoms of COVID-19 will immediately be isolated in the nurse’s office and dismissed for home. Symptoms include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, chills, repeated shaking with chills, new loss of taste/smell or muscle pain.

To prevent potential exposure and spread of infection, the district will be utilizing a “sick” nursing office and a “well” nursing office in each building, in conjunction with best practice nursing protocols. This protocol is to be followed by both staff and students. As part of the plan, parents parents/guardians will screen for symptoms at home each morning before school using an online PDE screening tool; no students with symptoms will be sent on a bus or brought to school. Temperature screenings, however, will not be required upon entrance to school for students or staff.

The health and safety plan also noted that cafeteria spaces will be used and are large enough to maintain social distancing guidelines. Additional lunch periods and spaces may be added to facilitate social distancing as necessary. Parents/guardians will be encouraged to deposit funds using the online payment portal, avoiding the handling of cash and checks in the cafeterias. Meal condiments will be limited and provided to students on the serving trays. Learners will not be permitted to serve themselves for items such as fruit and/or vegetable selections.

Water fountains will be closed and students will be encouraged to bring their own water bottles to school. Bottled water supply will be afforded to the extent feasible. Drinking stations will also be provided.

Recess can occur while maintaining proper social distancing when possible, but it may appear different at individual buildings, depending on space and number of students. Physical education classes are encouraged to be outdoors when possible.

As part of the plan, the district noted that its buildings will be “thoroughly cleaned and additional cleaning will take place to be ready to safely welcome staff and students for the reopening of school. Periodic building walkthroughs will take place to monitor conditions. Disinfecting and sanitizing supplies that are approved by CDC guidelines and meet OSHA regulations have been ordered and other personal protective equipment will be available for use.

“During instructional times, communal areas will be cleaned on a regular basis with particular emphasis on high contact areas. Hand sanitizing dispensers are available in the classrooms and portable stations will be placed in common areas. Ventilation systems have been set to allow the maximum amount of fresh air flow as is appropriate for the weather conditions. While the sharing of instructional materials will be limited, disinfectant wipes will be provided in all areas to clean any items that may be shared (i.e. keyboards in computer labs).”

As part of the health and safety plan, hallways will be disinfected daily with a “deep cleaning” of the entire building daily if full in-person learning returns.

Additionally, bus drivers will be provided with disinfectant to clean common touch points as frequently as possible. The entire bus will be disinfected once daily between the morning and afternoon trips.

Curry said school hallways will have arrows to help students get to classes while promoting social distancing. The district will also be staggering bell times to reduce the amount of traffic flow throughout the building. The district will also implement outdoor instruction, as weather permits.

Under the current plan, no visitors will be allowed to enter the building for at least the first semester. This includes but is not limited to parents/guardians, volunteers, student teachers, outside agencies, and salespeople. Virtual activities will be scheduled throughout the school year as feasible. In the case of an emergency or when absolutely necessary, parent/guardian/emergency contacts will be permitted to enter the building.

A number of parents and some instructors posed questions to Curry during the public comment portion of the meeting, expressing concerns from matters such as online learning, mask wearing and more.

Curry noted that Chromebooks will be provided to all elementary students, as needed, adding that the district will look to provide a more rigorous virtual program via iTrojan compared to last spring after Gov. Tom Wolf announced the closure of Pennsylvania’s K-12 schools. According to district data, currently 92% of Derry Area families have internet capability from home; the district said it will work with individuals who don’t have online access.

In other business, the school board approved:

  • A salary adjustment to $80,000 for athletic and transportation director Brett Miller for additional duties, not limited to the district’s capital campaign, effective July 1;
  • Kala Haase as head cheerleading coach, Jason Brown as middle school head football coach, Elizabeth Brownlee as middle school head boys’ soccer coach and Tom Perry as varsity tennis coach;
  • Coaching staffs for the 2020-21 school year;
  • The installation of plexiglass utilizing CARES Act funding.

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