School’s out for the summer in the Upper Perkiomen School District–but will it be back and inside school buildings in the fall, in spite of COVID-19? That’s a question with which many local districts are now wrestling.
The Upper Perkiomen School Board said “yes” to a return to classroom study at their July 13 meeting, although it was acknowledged that more planning needs to take place as the 2020-21 school year approaches.
New school board president Dr. Kerry Drake noted that there are a lot of unknowns, saying now is “not a time to debate what the perfect solution is.”
“We must rely on the experts,” he said, comparing the situation to a medical diagnosis in which experts are relied upon to treat something like cancer. Only one board member, district nurse Judith Maginnis, has any formal training in disease control, he added.
Students and faculty will need to wear masks, maintain physical distance and potentially even move to some kind of hybrid in-person/online educational model, Drake said, and the district must balance the need to educate children with the need to keep them and the rest of the community safe and healthy.
Superintendent Dr. Allyn J. Roche told the board a full reopening plan will be developed with guidance from the Montgomery County Office of Public Health and other organizations and will be discussed at the next school board meeting (scheduled for Aug. 13). Updates will be provided to parents in the interim, he added.
In the meantime, plans needed to be put in place for district activities that will commence before the school year begins, including the district’s Marching Band Health and Safety Plan for Voluntary Summer Rehearsals.
The plan mandates the use of face coverings, except for when band members are playing their instruments or if they have a medical exemption; physical distancing; pre-rehearsal screening of body temperatures with a running record being kept; and the completion of an acknowledgement form by both parents and students.
Acknowledging that PA Department of Health guidance allows for gatherings of no more than 250 people under the current “green phase,” Upper Perkiomen High School principal Dr. Rob Carpenter said, “we do not have 250 participants in band, but (we) are keeping a shared calendar so that we don’t have more than 250 folks within the school,” as other activities such as fall sports workouts are scheduled to take place in July and August.
The plan also dictates that instruments be sanitized daily, with smaller take-home instruments being cleaned before students leave. It specifies that they must never be shared and that sanitizing spray will be provided by the district.
A few details remain unclear, such as how long a band member will have to wait until returning to camp under a scenario in which they exhibit a 100.4 degree or greater fever.
The board ultimately approved the plan and scheduled band camp for July 22-24 (Percussion Mini-Camp) and Aug. 3-7 and 10-12 (Band Camp).
Next was a presentation from Superintendent Dr. Allyn Roche, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Andrea Farina and Director of Curriculum and Instruction Kim Bast entitled the “Upper Perkiomen School District 2020-21 School Year Planning Update.” An accompanying Frequently Asked Questions document was also posted on the website.
The two options for students for the upcoming school year are face-to-face instruction (“normal” school) and a virtual version of that via the Upper Perkiomen Online Academy.
“We are anxious to welcome all of our students back this August,” said Bast, who provided an update on the connections between the academy and Upper Perkiomen’s brick-and-mortar schools. Bast said the district hopes “to run parallel programs” between in-person and online classes. She also described a “Transitions” program, which will provide three opportunities for students to switch between the two models. Parents will need to declare their child’s intent to transition by Oct. 26, Jan. 19 and March 22, respectively, to allow time for students and families to adjust their learning, schedules, meals, busing and more amid the evolving pandemic.
As of July 13, Farina said, nearly 1,100 district students–or roughly one third of all students–had declared their intent for the start of the school year. Among the families who had replied, she said 82 percent plan on returning to in-person instruction, with nearly 16 percent opting to continue their education online.
She also gave an update on the financial implications of the restructuring for the district.
“There is going to be some kind of additional nursing support necessary that we did not budget for,” she said, indicating that the $365,000 already spent on PPE and other supplies “is just the beginning” of anticipated additional spending related to COVID-19.
Former board president Raeann Hofkin expressed concern over children potentially mimicking “adults ‘mask-shaming’ other adults” and asked if kids will need to supply their own masks. Roche said students will generally be expected to arrive at school with face masks, but that the district will have some on hand if for some reason a student doesn’t have one.
District solicitor Kyle Somers responded to Hofkin’s concern by referencing the district’s dress code, which he said will apply to face masks in the sense that masks imprinted tiwh offensive logos and the like will not be permitted.
“Student bullying and harassment policies are still in effect,” Somers said. “Shaming or criticizing that student could be based on a disability.”
Roche said that he is looking for additional clarification on mask requirements from the state, because Pennsylvania’s current order mandating their use in public does not extend as far as requiring a doctor’s note for an exemption. Maginnis said in her experience “there are very few medical conditions that prohibit one from wearing a mask” for a prolonged period and suggested supplying face shields as an alternative.
Parent Christine Schmoyer asked the board whether there will be any consequences for students who intentionally refuse to properly wear a mask and have no documented medical exemption. Farina acknowledged that it is a nuanced scenario and said faculty are directed to engage in “social/emotional conversation, (as we) do not desire to issue punitive measures to students.”
The board also discussed transitioning both its meetings back to an in-person setting, starting with its Aug. 27 meeting. Board member Stephen Cunningham expressed his preference for a “hybrid” model that would involve holding meetings simultaneously in-person and on Zoom, since “some people still aren’t going to feel comfortable” by then. Prior to the pandemic, the board held its meetings in the high school auditorium, but had also discussed holding them in the larger middle school auditorium.