Local school boards and administrators have faced a challenging summer as they attempt to formulate the best possible plans for the 2020-21 school year, while recognizing that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could force them to rethink them at virtually any time.
District reopening plans must account for student and faculty safety, educational quality and budgetary concerns, but the amount of community input toward them has varied.
In the Palisades School District, concerns were raised last month about the level of student and staff involvement in developing the district’s plan to bring kids back.
Two incoming juniors, Lucas Finzi and Brynn Keyser, voiced their concerns about the Palisades School Reopening Health and Safety Plan at the July 22 school board meeting at which the board passed the plan by a vote of 5 to 4.
The students subsequently launched a petition which included a number of recommendations, including expanding the reopening study panel to include several students and at least 13 teachers (one from each grade level). The existing team included two current teachers, athletic director Brian Gilbert and science teacher Mark Chilton; and one district health professional, middle school nurse Elissa Harwick. Chilton is also co-president of the Palisades Education Association, the union which represents the district’s teachers.
The petition reads, in part: “We felt that students and teachers were unrepresented in the plan, and a Student and Teacher Panel within the Pandemic Team should be required; after all, students and teachers will be on the front-lines, not the school board. The board voted 5-4 to pass the ‘Palisades Plan’ for reopening, which continues to include the Pandemic Team with insufficient teacher and zero student representation. Students and teachers have felt unrepresented throughout this plan, and continue to feel so. By including students and teachers on the Pandemic Team, this will create more diverse and rather more justified decisions regarding student and teacher health.”
Finzi and Keyser criticized the Palisades Plan for lacking a universal face covering mandate, for not including district-administered daily temperature checks for all students and staff members upon entering district facilities and buses, and for having what they said is an insufficient action plan if a student or faculty member tests positive for COVID-19.
Finzi said that as of July 31 the petition had received 246 signatures.
In spite of that, Keyser questioned whether she and Finzi are being taken seriously by a majority of the board.
“I have been sending emails about (the petition and its recommendations) every two days and have yet to hear from those who voted for the plan,” she said.
Finzi said three of the board members who voted ‘no’ on the plan–Dawn Grochowiak, Scott Freeman and Silvia LeBlanc–reached out in support of his and Keyser’s proposals.
Without additional board members’ support for a reworked reopening plan, however, the district could see an exodus of students this fall, Keyser predicted.
“It saddens me to say this, but I have informed the school board that if a student-teacher panel is not formed and if this plan is not changed, I, and many other students, are quite likely to leave the Palisades School District for an online charter school,” she said. “I would much prefer to stay in Palisades, however, the health and safety of my family and I come first.”
Finzi said he will be physically present for the opening of Palisades High School.
“Currently, my plans are to attend Palisades for in-person learning,” he said. “I hope that the district makes the right decisions on the reopening plans so that I, along with many of my peers, won’t feel that going back for in-person learning is a ‘bad idea’ of sorts.”
When asked for comment regarding the students’ petition, O’Connell provided a statement in which she defended the plan the board approved in July.
“The plan was developed by a team of administrators, teachers, parents and a school nurse that relied on the medical guidance issued by the Bucks County Department of Health, the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and feedback from our partners at LVHN/CH,” O’Connell said.
“Since the board passed the motion to approve the plan, our families have pre-registered their children for either face-to-face or online instruction beginning Aug. 31,” she noted.
She also asserted that “while the 5-4 vote may indicate to some that we are divided as a community, we are not. We all remain on the same side and committed to the health of our community and the education of our students.”
Grochowiak also provided a statement regarding her vote.
“There are so many reasons (why) this plan needs to be voted down,” she said. “Financially, if there is a mass exodus of students to cyber charter schools which offer full synchronous learning and full virtual live instruction every day, it would be catastrophic… We could be looking at school closures, layoffs and tax increases for our seniors. I don’t want to see that happen. I am disappointed about all the wasted time working on a plan which may not align with what most parents and teachers want.”
Of Finzi and Keyser’s efforts, Grochowiak said she supports “amplifying their voices.”
“I love our students and they are both phenomenal kids,” she added.
The next Palisades School Board meeting will be held virtually this Wednesday, Aug. 5 at 7 p.m. For more information, visit the school board page on the district’s website.