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Palmyra Area School District has put two plans in place for its students this fall — one for elementary students, and another for the middle and high school grades.
“We are starting our middle school and high school with an alternating day schedule,” district superintendent Bernie Kepler explained.
That means students with last names beginning with an A through K will be in school on some days, students with last names beginning with an L through Z will be in on the others.
Students at home will be taking classes through a “synchronous model” that lets them participate in classes remotely.
“They’ll log in, they’ll see the teacher’s screen, they’ll hear the teacher and they’ll see the teacher at times,” Kepler said. “The next day, it will be the opposite group of students.”
The district has offered parents who are not comfortable with having their secondary students in a school an option to have them home every day, he added. From there, they can participate either in the synchronous class schedule or attend the Cougar Academy, an asynchronous program that lets students work on their own schedule.
At the elementary level, Kepler said, “all students are coming in full time,” although some parents are opting to keep their children home full time, either to participate in synchronous learning or enroll in Cougar Academy.
In fact, the superintendent said, enrollment in the cyber program has jumped dramatically. Most years, the district has about 10 elementary-age students in the program, he said; already for the coming academic year, enrollment is at 145.
“And that’s just at the elementary level,” Kepler said. “We reassigned three teachers just yesterday. They’re going to be doing the Cougar Academy with those students.”
There’s also an increase in the number of secondary students enrolled in the program, he noted, although the increase is “not as significant.”
Although the academy program is asynchronous, he stressed that “teachers will still monitor their work. They will communicate with the students” as needed.
The school approved the reopening plan during a special meeting on July 27. Classes are scheduled to resume Aug. 31.
The decision followed two surveys of parents to get their feedback, Kepler said.
“There is obviously a great level of concern for the health and safety of their students,” he said. “But about 85 percent of our elementary respondents in our first survey were hoping to send their students to school full time.”
Read More: CLSD super says most parents want in-person schooling, discusses plan for fall
A revolving schedule is more difficult to arrange for younger students, he said, especially in households where there is a single parent or both parents work.
“We’re working to create the greatest social distancing possible,” the superintendent said.
Students with individualized education programs can choose to attend classes in person every day, he added, so they can receive the attention they require.
Kepler said the Palmyra district used approximately $500,000 in government assistance — from the federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act and the COVID-19 Disaster Emergency School Health and Safety Grant — to hire the equivalent of 1.5 additional teachers and buy extra cleaning supplies for the schools.
Read more: Breaking down 2020-21 Lebanon County school budgets, district-by-district
They also ordered tables and chairs so the high school can expand its cafeteria space into the atrium.
Parents were asked to let the district know their decision for in-person or remote learning by Aug. 3. It’s still possible to change the decision, he stressed, although parents should work directly with their school principal to make last-minute adjustments.
The district is trying to be flexible so that parents can change their minds as circumstances related to COVID-19 develop.
Read more: [Column] Plans for return to school vary greatly among school districts
“We feel we can make those changes most of the time,” Kepler said. “If a student wants to come back into the building more, we believe we can do that rather easily. If students need to stay home every day, we can do that readily.”
The biggest issue would be students who want to join Cougar Academy, he said, “because we’re at capacity for students in that program.”
Read more: 3 lessons from how schools responded to 1918 pandemic worth heeding today
Fortunately, he said, the district was already providing its students with iPads and laptops, so the cost to adapt to remote learning wasn’t as high as it might have been. A portion of the grant money, he said, helped to buy additional technology for teachers.
The curriculum has been adjusted, Kepler said, so that there is some time built into the program to teach students how to use their at-home technology.
“But we’re poised to open, and we’ll provide a much stronger at-home model than we had March to June,” he said.
Of course, he added, “this is an ever-evolving issue. There will be more guidance coming out all the time.” For instance, he said, the governor just recommended curtailing school sports until January.
“Every day, there’s new information we’re working through,” Kepler said.
Updates will be posted as needed to the district website at palmyraportal.org.
Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.
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