Northern Lebanon School District is preparing for any contingency as the fallout from COVID-19 continues to make specifics of the coming school year uncertain, its superintendent said.
“We’re trying to provide parents with options,” district superintendent Gary Messinger said. “I’ve heard from both sides, some who want to come back full time and some who don’t want to come back at all.”
The state has asked schools to put together a plan that provides options for in-school and virtual learning, he said. Accordingly, Northern Lebanon has designed a plan with three options for instruction.
One, Messinger said, is “fully physical,” meaning all students and teachers are in the building together. Another is fully virtual, which keeps everyone at home.
And the third option is a hybrid of the previous two, Messinger said. In that model, he said, students will either be in school on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays, while their at-home counterparts follow along with the class on a laptop or tablet. All students in that scenario would participate in at-home instruction on Wednesdays, he said, “to allow us to clean the schools thoroughly.”
A “handful of students” would still come every day, he said — those, for instance, with special education needs or no home internet, as well as students attending the Lebanon County Career and Technology Center with daily school requirements.
Even if the school is “fully open” and returns to in-school instruction full-time, he said, the district will still allow students to stay home and attend classes virtually.
“We will have a livestream option from the classroom,” he explained. “The students would see the teacher they are assigned to, they would be online with other students in the room, and they can participate in the class just as if they were seated in the class.”
The schools are installing cameras and microphones in the classrooms to facilitate at-home learning, he said.
The district also has an online, asynchronous cyber program available, Messinger noted.
The Northern Lebanon school board decided Aug. 4 to open with the hybrid approach at the secondary level, “which is consistent with many if not all of the school districts in Lebanon County,” Messinger said.
The district now is asking parents to decide what option they want for their children when school reopens Aug. 31.
“Parents need to decide if their children are going to attend fully virtual, if they’re going to attend in the hybrid model, or if they’re going to attend the cyber program,” he said. The district currently is working to finalize its class lists and bus rosters for the fall.
With the hybrid approach, he added, the district is better able to balance numbers in the classrooms.
“At the high school level, it’s very difficult to keep kids from mixing,” Messinger noted. “Those students don’t travel in a cohort all day. They travel from one class to another, they’re mixing with other students. Buses are way more crowded if we come back fully physically.
“At the elementary level, the kids are coming back every day. The reasoning behind that is, we can keep them together. They stay together all day long. They don’t need to mix with other students. They can go to recess as a class, they can pick up their lunches as a class.”
Also, he said, “we believe secondary kids are much more capable of learning virtually than elementary kids are. It’s just so critical for elementary kids to grasp the basic concepts at a young age, rather than falling behind with their basic math and reading skills.”
Each building administrator has been asked to develop procedures for “mask breaks” throughout the day. “We certainly want to allow kids an opportunity to take those off,” Messinger said.
The district is ready to switch gears quickly as circumstances change.
“We have everything in place to be able to return completely physically in a very short period of time — a matter of days — if the restrictions lessen,” he said. “We also believe we could transition to completely virtual relatively quickly.”
It’s a far cry from last spring, he said, when “schools weren’t prepared for this” and some districts scrambled to put virtual learning programs in place.
Closing the school again fully, he said, would probably take a mandate from the Department of Health, which likely would only occur if there’s another big outbreak in Lebanon County.
The district is using state and federal grant money to cover some of the costs of additional technology, cleaning supplies, face masks and shields, and hand sanitizers. Fortunately, Messinger said, the district had already provided devices for at-home learning to all students.
“We’re trying to think ahead on staffing concerns. I was able to put some staffing into those grants,” he added.
“An acceptable class size prior to this doesn’t work any more,” he explained. “So there are a couple of areas where we’re going to add teachers to help keep class sizes down.”
Overall, the superintendent said he is very pleased with the plan for the 2020-21 school year.
“Some would prefer we were doing it differently. Some are appreciative of the work we did to come up with a workable plan,” he said. “I guess that reflects society as a whole. That’s the position we’re in.”
Any updates to the plan will be posted on the district website at norleb.org.
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