A boisterous and sometimes rowdy crowd of citizens gathered in the Gettysburg Middle School auditorium last night as the school board began its discussion of the health and safety plan that will guide how students return to school in August.
Superintendent Jason Perrin presented an outline of a proposed plan which will be finalized by a vote of the school board at its next meeting on August 3.
Perrin said the administration had sent a survey to parents in June about the topic and then convened a team of 20 or more people who worked together to create the preliminary plan.
Perrin said the district would be getting more feedback over the next weeks. The proposed plan will be distributed to parents later this week along with a follow-up survey. Perrin also said focus groups would be held.
“We want schools to reopen safely for all students,” said Perrin. “We want to try to reopen as responsibly as we can so we can stay open.”
Perrin said the plan was designed to be fluid, and could be followed even if the county is forced to move back into the yellow phase. “We want a single plan that can be utilized regardless of the phase,” said Perrin.
The plan includes guidelines for cleaning and sanitizing, particularly of high traffic areas, during the day.
In terms of transportation, Perrin said school buses would run with two children per seat and face masks required.
Other notable aspects of the plan:
- Students in kindergarten through sixth grade and children with specialty needs would attend school every day.
- Grades 7-12 would have a blended, rotating schedule, in which children worked from home every other day. Perrin said families with children in different grades would be placed on the same rotating schedule.
- A 100% online option, offered through the Gettysburg Area Virtual Academy, would be available for families who choose that option. These children would have the opportunity to participate in extracurricular school activities.
- Teachers, rather than students, would rotate through classrooms.
- Face coverings would be required when entering and exiting the school and when social distancing is not possible, but would be recommended but optional at other times.
Perrin proposed the school start date be moved from August 19 to August 24 to allow extra days of professional development so teachers could learn the new learning management system.
“There isn’t a plan that is going to make everybody happy. Our goal is to do the best we can get as many kids back face to face as we can in a responsible way so we can remain open,” said Perrin.
After Perrin’s presentation, fourteen audience members gave public comment, almost entirely around the issue of requiring face masks for children.
The speakers all expressed concern for the children, but came to different conclusions about the issue. About half of the presenters were in favor of masks, saying they would slow the spread of the virus. Others were opposed to requiring masks, saying they would not be effective and citing notions of individual liberty.
Each speaker received a ringing round of applause from the audience.
The last speaker, Evan Kahn, a sophomore at the Gettysburg Area High School, said he thought the debate was “a waste of everyone’s time,” reminding the crowd that on July 1 Pennsylvania Governor Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine created a mandate that requires wearing a face mask in all public places, including local schools and district offices. Kahn also noted that the State Supreme Court had already ruled that the face mask mandate was constitutional.
“We’re debating a topic that’s already been decided by the governor and the State of Pennsylvania,” said Kahn.
Board Members React
Board President Kenneth Hassinger pointed out that the decisions made about reopening would be particularly critical for families such as “those who are working two jobs and who may have daycare issues.” He asked Perrin to be sure the focus groups being held over the next weeks include a diverse group of parents and community members.
Hassinger also said the board had a “fantastic relationship with our teacher’s union. It is paramount that the union be represented in the groups. They have to have some representation on the committee.”
Board member Sylvan Hershey read a quote that he attributed to President Trump: “Just because you have a right to do something does not mean it is the right thing to do.” Hershey said “You have to take a hard look at that statement.”
Board member Carrie Soliday thanked Perrin for the work he and the administration had done on researching and creating the health and safety plan. She said she realized the administration had been looking forward over the past months to this decision and was aware of the responsibility the administration was taking on. She said she was that sure the “energy that you put into this” will create a successful plan.
Board member Kathleen Pratt received a round of applause from the board and the audience as she thanked “everyone who came out tonight,” and then said:
“When we discuss about the best way to get our kids back to school, we cannot do it from the lens of elephant or the lens of donkey. I don’t have time for real or imagined agendas. I care about our kids. I care about our teachers. I care about our staff.”
Pratt said she should be making her decision “through a lens of public health.”
Charles Stangor is Gettysburg News’s Publisher and Editor in Chief.