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Chester County Press

Avon Grove School Board grapples with some weighty issues

12/01/2020 12:40PM ● By Steven Hoffman
If everything had gone according to plan, the Avon Grove School District would have already welcomed back middle school and high school students to the secondary school buildings for in-person instruction.
But this is 2020, and things just haven’t gone according to plan.
Just as Avon Grove was looking to ramp up its in-person instruction for students district-wide, the pandemic intervened—once again—and district officials and parents are confronted with some difficult decisions.
At the school board’s most recent meeting, district officials discussed how Avon Grove continues to grapple with the challenges of navigating through the school year while the pandemic rages on and health and safety recommendations can change from one day to the next.
Avon Grove has generally adopted a conservative approach to reopening schools during the pandemic—while the school district welcomed elementary school students back into buildings on a limited basis earlier this month, the secondary school students have been relying on virtual learning exclusively.
The school board has now decided to push back the date when hybrid learning for middle school and high school students can begin to Dec. 14. A hybrid program blends virtual learning with some in-school programming. Many school districts in the area have been utilizing a hybrid program so that families can decide for themselves whether the best option is in-person instruction or virtual learning.
But now, with the number of COVID-19 cases increasing both locally and nationally, school districts must make the agonizingly difficult decision on how to move forward amidst a global pandemic.
Superintendent Dr. Christopher Marchese said that he and the other superintendents and school leaders throughout the region took part in a virtual meeting with state officials about the coronavirus pandemic and the rising number of cases of COVID-19. Marchese explained that the county continues to see an increased number of COVID-19 cases, and state officials advised that if the incident rate per 100,000 residents continues to stay at high levels in Chester County, there may be a recommendation coming for school districts to pivot to full virtual learning until the number of COVID-19 cases drops to safer levels.
At the Nov. 19 meeting, the Avon Grove School Board voted 8-1 to follow the administration’s recommendation to delay the start of hybrid education for middle school and high school students, while continuing to offer a hybrid program for elementary students. The ever-changing situation will be reevaluated before then to ensure that the reopening of the secondary schools is what’s best for Avon Grove at that time.
“This is going to be a fluid process,” Marchese said. “We’re going to look at the data and make decisions based on what’s in front of us.”
He added that guidance from health experts will continue to be critical.
Marchese said that the number of linked transmissions—those cases of COVID-19 that can be traced back to students and employees who are in schools or participating in school-related activities—will be important in determining if schools in the county, or the state, will be able to continue to offer in-person instruction.
The Avon Grove superintendent explained that there are generally very low transmission rates in elementary schools because of the nature of the coronavirus and how it spreads. Elementary school students generally spend more time in one classroom rather than moving from class to class in crowded hallways.
While school districts are doing what they can to put in place procedures that will limit the spread of the coronavirus, there are no easy answers or guaranteed solutions.
Marchese said that some other school districts are already facing staffing challenges because of the need to quarantine staff members whenever a potential exposure takes place. Substitute teachers are in short supply as a result of the pandemic.
Marchese said that Avon Grove officials will continue to monitor the situation and make the best decisions they can based on the information they have at that time. He noted that he is in regular communication with all the other superintendents in the county. 
The school district offers a COVID-19 dashboard on its website at that provides updates about COVID-19 cases in the school district, as well as other relevant data.
In a related matter, the school board approved the health and safety plan for the upcoming winter sports season. This plan is in line with what has been adopted by the Ches-Mont League. The plan, like all other plans right now, is a work-in-progress that will be modified as needed to remain in compliance with changing health guidelines from the state and county. Avon Grove wants to provide as much of an opportunity for students to participate in sports and extra-curricular activities as possible, while also doing everything possible to limit the risks of the coronavirus. The winter sports season is more challenging than the fall sports season because so many of the activities must take place indoors, where there is a greater chance of spreading COVID-19. Like in-person instruction, the winter sports season will likely unfold with adjustments likely based on the changing situation.
In other business at the meeting, Dr. Natalie Ortega-Moran and Dr. Niki Harvey led a presentation about equity and engagement in the district. The presentation comes after months of work investigating and analyzing concerns regarding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the schools.
Harvey, the district’s director of K-12 teaching and learning, said that Ortega-Moran is playing a critical role in leading this effort for Avon Grove. 
Ortega-Moran, who has been employed by Avon Grove for more than 20 years, is serving as an assistant principal on assignment as Avon Grove looks to develop a plan to address issues of diversity and inclusion in the school district. Ortega-Moran has organized five community meetings just since July to improve community engagement. These meetings, which have taken place virtually, have attracted at least 150 participants. Avon Grove officials said that these meetings have been helpful to gain insights about the needs of the diverse school district community.
Ortega-Moran has also conducted 79 home visits—these are necessary when, for example, a student fails to log in for virtual learning sessions. Most of the time, the students’ failure to log in can be attributed to Internet issues or computer problems.
Ortega-Moran said that she has heard many positive comments about how Avon Grove transitioned to virtual learning back in the spring, proactively making sure that students and their families had what they needed to participate in online learning. Parents have also said good things about how the school district communicates with them during this difficult time.
She said that she has talked to people in other school districts and Avon Grove is definitely leading the way with regard to community engagement and providing quality service to families in the school district.
Another item on the agenda was a donation from the Avon Grove Education Foundation. The Avon Grove Education Foundation is providing a grant of $7,103.31 that will be used by Avon Grove High School science teacher Stephanie Shrake to fund the hardware and peripheral purchases to create an Avon Grove Computer Science Honor Society in the school.
The school board also approved a new contract for Dr. Wendi Lee Kraft, who serves as the district’s director of personnel. The contract is effective July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2026.
Work is continuing on the high school construction project. School board president Bill Wood said that they have received and  approved the first change order for the high school project. The school board approved a contract with Underground Services, Inc. to perform pipeline location and testing site work for the new high school building.
The Avon Grove School Board will hold its annual reorganization meeting on Thursday, Dec. 3.

Chester County High School Sports