Diversity, Fall Reopening Concerns Dominate Southern Lehigh School Board Meeting

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The final Southern Lehigh School District School Board meeting of the 2019-20 school year was characterized by two prevailing themes: approving a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Program for all faculty and staff and concerns over reopening schools for the 2020-21 school year.

The board was met with a proposal from Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Evison to have Dr. Joseph Allen of Charlotte, N.C., implement his diversity, inclusion and equity needs assessment, action planning and professional development program, which would analyze the specific needs of the district (by conducting a “climate study,” according to Allen), develop a customized plan and implement a series of educational programs for faculty and staff. The proposal indicated that funding from federal programs would cover any associated program costs.

Though a recent anti-racism petition was not mentioned specifically, the challenge to Southern Lehigh administrators put forth by Kyra Salamon and Sarah Triebecka on Change.org asked for remedies along the lines of what is being proposed.

Evison told the board Allen’s “intensive program” is initiated with a small group of “lead teachers.” As it develops, “gradually we’ll roll more and more staff into the program,” she said.

When questioned, Allen asserted that the program can continue even if education is again disrupted in the fall due to a spike in COVID-19 cases. “We can set this up like an online college course,” he said, although he noted such a scenario would not be “ideal.” 

When board treasurer Anita Desai asked about the timeline for completing the program,  Allen indicated that it’s “customizable” and could take anywhere from five weeks to five months. Board vice president Mary Anne Nord suggested offering the training to the school resource officers who work in Southern Lehigh. Evison agreed with that idea and said the SROs have attended other trainings the district has offered.

Despite general positivity and enthusiasm from the board during the question-and-answer portion of the discussion about the proposal, not everyone was 100 percent on board with it. When Allen said the program could also potentially address topics in addition to racism, such as LGBTQ+ issues, board member Jeffrey Dimmig expressed what he called a concern about “religious liberty” and requested clarification on what topics would be addressed. When Evison indicated it would be a fluid program with the potential to add topics, Dimmig said he thought the program would be strictly focused on addressing “racial issues.”

“I don’t know that I can support trainings about gender and sexual-type issues without knowing more about it,” he said. “I can’t support it.”

“This is the next piece of changing the culture at Southern Lehigh,” board member William Lycett said, expressing his support for the program.

The motion to approve it passed with only one ‘no’ vote, from Dimmig.

COVID-19 and its impact on the 2020-21 school year was the other major topic of concern at the meeting and led several community members to express differing opinions on how teducational and social settings might look for Southern Lehigh students this fall.

Kristen Brook, a self-described “educator for over 20 years” and district parent, told the board “safety must be a priority…we cannot just go back to normal.”

Brook said students, staff and faculty must wear masks and practice social distancing when school resumes. She asked the board to be proactive with regard to health and safety measures, arguing that adjustments made in advance will make it easier for students, teachers and parents to plan for the reopening.

Another parent expressed an opposing viewpoint, telling the board that “masks create a terrible learning environment and stoke fear” in children, and asking for schools to operate “as close to normal as we can for these kids.”

Parent Lark Kurtz also briefly commented, inquiring about the accommodations being made for parents who may be afraid to send their children to school due to COVID-19.

Responding to the concerns raised by the parents, Evison explained what the district is currently doing to plan ahead.

“There are a number of considerations the district is undertaking,” she said, but noted that there is also conflicting guidance which can make planning ahead challenging.

“One set of (social distancing) guidance may say six feet, masks for everyone, another may say three to six feet…the difference between three and six feet is extremely significant,” Evison said.

She referenced guidance from the state Department of Education and the Bucks County Department of Health, which she called “helpful,” but noted that not every county has a health department, including the county in which the district is located.

Consultation with the Pennsylvania Department of Health, the flexibility to explore various options and input from parents, students and faculty will help guide the process. 

Evison stressed that everybody needs to understand two things: students may need to move between options, as their situation may change; and they may need to move to an online education option, particularly if a COVID-19 spike causes case counts to change.

She added that the district is adjusting its professional development calendar in order to ensure that teachers receive readiness support for increased online learning.

Dimmig also asked about board meetings moving forward. There are no board meetings scheduled until August–except for a special pandemic planning community meeting that is to be held in July–but whether or not they will then be held in-person is unknown.

“There’s nothing prohibiting that, as long as there are some parameters (around social distancing),” Evison said.

Lycett added that even when in-person meetings may be held again, he would like to see an online component to them remain in place.

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