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Chester County Press

‘We’ve Been Asked to Build the Plane While Flying It’: Avon Grove School District Discusses Preparations For Coming School Year

07/22/2020 09:23PM ● By Steven Hoffman
Avon Grove School District officials planned a special meeting for July 16 so that the school board could approve a district health and safety plan that would lead to the safe reopening of schools. Officials were eager to share details of the plan with the community. Parents, in particular, are desperate for specific details about how education is going to be delivered as Pennsylvania grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

About four hours before the meeting was to start, Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf’s administration released an updated, more comprehensive set of guidelines for Pennsylvania’s public schools.

The new guidelines, Avon Grove School District superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said, will delay Avon Grove and other school districts from providing details about the reopening to parents and students.

“We are now back to the drawing board,” said Avon Grove School Board president Bill Wood, explaining that district officials will need to incorporate the new guidelines into the plan that had been worked on for weeks. 

Wood talked about the enormous challenges that school districts face as they develop plans to safely reopen schools for the 2020-2021 school year. With so much uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and its impact moving forward, school districts have to be prepared for any eventuality.

“We’ve been asked to build the plane while we’re flying it,” Wood said. “Now, we’re being asked to rebuild the plane while we’re flying it.”

Under the updated guidelines from the state, each school entity will determine if classes resume in person at school buildings, take place remotely, or if some combination of the two methods will be utilized.

“Our goal is to ensure a safe return to school for students, educators and staff by following best practices to mitigate the spread of the virus, including wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing,” state secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said in a statement outlining the new guidelines. “In those instances when someone tests positive, public health staff from the department will immediately assist the school with risk assessment, isolation and quarantine recommendations, and other infection control recommendations.”

According to state officials, the updated guidance incorporates the best public health practices related to social distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene, and cleaning and disinfecting in school settings. It also outlines how to accommodate individuals with disabilities or chronic conditions, procedures for monitoring symptoms, and responding to confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in the school community.

“The health and safety of students, teachers and staff must be paramount as schools prepare for the upcoming school year,” said Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera. “The Department of Education has been focused on supporting schools with resources and best practices to help school leaders make informed decisions within their local contexts and in response to evolving conditions.”

When and how to safely reopen schools amid a pandemic has been a source of great uncertainty and anguish for parents, students and school district officials across the state and around the country.

While the Avon Grove School Board delayed any discussion or a vote on a reopening and health and safety plan at the July 16 meeting, Marchese did make it clear that, with the start of the new school year now just weeks away, the plan is to offer parents the choice of having their children attend classes in a school building or remotely. There could also be an option that allows students to utilize both methods during the course of the school year.
“There will be school options for families in 2020-2021,” Marchese said.

The superintendent emphasized that the remote learning option that school district officials have been working on—what Marchese called the Avon Grove Online Learning Academy—is much more robust than what the school district could offer when schools abruptly closed to stop the spread of the coronavirus in March.

“This will be very different from what was happening in March through June,” Marchese said, calling that time a “survival period” for schools in the U.S.

Marchese explained that the district has been able to develop an online learning academy that is centered around Avon Grove’s staff and Avon Grove’s curriculum, with the students at the center of it all.

The new Avon Grove Online Learning Academy is “about teaching and learning. It is not about surviving,” he said.

Parents played an important role in helping the school district develop the online learning academy. Marchese noted that the school district surveyed families in May about the remote learning that was taking place at that time, and then district officials used that feedback to develop strategies to make the remote learning experience as good as it could be.

“We were really interested in finding out from families what worked well and what needed to be changed,” Marchese said.

The superintendent also noted that waivers were granted to school districts for the 2019-2020 school year regarding the state’s requirements for school days and instructional hours at the elementary and secondary levels. Now, for 2020-2021, schools will be expected to meet those requirements. Marchese explained that state lawmakers inserted language in the budget agreement that specifically states that such waivers wouldn’t be granted for the 2020-2021 school year.

Marchese observed that, even if the school district relies heavily on remote learning for the upcoming school year, the state is no longer in a lockdown situation so there will be many more socialization opportunities for students. Parents will also be able to interact more with teachers and school staff members, so the situation has improved greatly from what was taking place between March and June.

Wood thanked the administrative team and staff for all the hard work on the plan to safely reopen schools. The job has been made more difficult because clear, comprehensive direction from the U.S. government on how to safely reopen schools during a pandemic has not been forthcoming, so states have been largely on their own to develop strategies.

Pennsylvania’s updated guidelines on reopening schools include a number of best practice recommendations for schools outlined by the state departments of Health and Education.
These recommendations include the following:
  • Masks must be worn by students and staff at school and on the bus as required by the order signed by the state Secretary of Health on July 1, with some exceptions. Masks can be removed to eat or drink.
  • Students or caregivers should do a daily symptom screening before leaving for school.
  • Students, teachers and other staff are strongly encouraged to follow social distancing throughout the day with 6 feet of separation between desks and other seating.
  • If possible, hold classes in gyms, auditoriums, other large spaces or outdoors, where physical distancing can be maintained.
  • Student seating should be facing in the same direction.
  • Limit student interactions by staggering class times, creating one-way walking patterns in hallways, and, when feasible, keeping students in a classroom and rotating teachers instead.
  • For breakfast and lunch, consider serving individually packaged meals in classrooms and avoid across-the-table seating.  If meals are served in a cafeteria, sit students at least 6 feet apart.
  • Limit the number of students on playgrounds at one time and encourage social distancing.
  • Encourage the use of virtual gatherings, events, and extracurricular activities.
Marchese thanked the community for its patience while plans for the 2020-2021 school year continue to be developed.

Additionally, the school district received a lot of public comment about the district’s health and safety plan in advance of the July 16 meeting. Those comments are being shared with board members and administration for consideration and review before a plan is adopted at an upcoming public meeting. Public comment will be sought in advance of that vote as well.
Wood pledged that they will get information out to parents and the community as soon as possible. “Believe me,” he said, “we are trying.”