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PMSD Brings Students back Four Days


Using PA Department of Health daily case data, The Boro & Towne created this chart to show the relative status of the COVID epidemic in Monroe County at key points in the PMSD 20-21 School Term. The line shows the 7-Day moving average of new COVID cases here. From Left to Right along that line are the following points in time: September 1, PMSD is 100% virtual; September 30, students are offered hybrid options of two days in school, three virtual; March 3, the PMSD decides to go to a 4-dayin school schedule; and the final flag shows the state of the pandemic in the county when the 4-day decision went into effect. (Boro Chart)

SWIFTWATER – On March 3, the Pocono Mountain School District Board of Directors unanimously voted to return all students to in-person classes four days a week beginning March 15. Board President Rusty Johnson was not at the meeting.

Two days after CDC director Rochelle Walensky warned the country that “now is not the time” to lift public health restrictions in the face of new variants and continued substantial community spread in many places (including Monroe County), the school district administration recommended returning all students to full four-day a week classes in all buildings starting March 15.


‘6-foot Distance Thing’


In making their recommendation, the administration revealed that they were planning to depart from “that six-foot distance thing,” as Kathleen Smith. Ed.D., the district’s Co-Pandemic Coordinator/Executive Director Human Resources, referred to the CDC’s well-known social distancing measure.

Instead, she told the board that the district would be going down to as little as three feet distancing, particularly in classrooms. She referred to guidance by the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics, who both condoned the lesser distance. Besides, she said, the CDC only recommended six-foot distancing “if possible.” If they allow all students to return at the same time “that won’t be possible,” Smith told the board.

At the meeting, the administration said that the most number of students on a bus run would be 31 in a 78-capacity vehicle. CDC guidance for school buses places one student per seat in alternate rows, resulting in a maximum capacity of 12 or 13 students, depending on configuration. That capacity does not include students from the same household who may sit together.

Following the meeting, the district declined to provide the seating configuration of their buses “due to student safety and privacy concerns,” according to a district spokesperson. Bus manufacturers publicly post their configuration charts, which confirm a maximum capacity of 13, not including siblings.

After the meeting, responding to this newspaper’s inquiry, the district said there would be an average of 20 students assigned to a bus and that most “will have 14-17 students”.

On the day after the meeting, an administration spokesperson told B&T that they were not able to say where, in addition to the classrooms, it would not be “possible” to adhere to the six-foot rule.

Besides setting aside the CDC recommendations, the administration justified the move by noting that a majority of parents voted in a survey for a return to in-person classes four days a week.


{Ed Note: Two weeks after the board decision, the CDC revised guidelines for K-12 to 3 feet; but kept the 6-foot distance for middle & high school in communities, like Monroe, where there is "high" transmission. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/19/cdc-shortens-social-distancing-guidelines-for-schools-to-3-feet-with-masks.html)


No Chance for Public Comment


In a departure from the usual practice, the superintendent choose to delay announcement of the recommendation until nearly one and a quarter hours into the meeting – after the public comment portion of the meeting had concluded. As a result, the parents, teachers, and community members at the meeting were deprived of an opportunity to comment on the proposal prior to board action.

However, Tom Brogan, Pocono Mountain Education Association President and an eighth grade math teacher in the district, had submitted a written statement, read by an administrator, during the public comment section.

In his statement, Brogan pointed out that, thanks to the then recently announced state plan to vaccinate teachers, “within a couple of weeks hundreds of staff will have been vaccinated. We ask that you postpone any change until the next school board meeting.” The official response was a curt, “Thank you for your comment.”

At the time of the decision, the district had already announced it would receive 479 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which would be administered by March 22. With about 745 teachers in the district, the initial allocation of the one-dose vaccine would be enough to protect over 60% of that staff. Shortly after the board meeting, the Governor announced that doses were secured and plans in place to ensure that all teachers in the Commonwealth could be vaccinated by the end of March.

Parents in the district were given the option of keeping their children home using either full virtual instruction or the district cyber program. Unlike during the hybrid system, parents would not be permitted to change their minds after making their decision, absent extenuating circumstances.


PDE Says 6-foot Distance

Rule is Still a Thing


The district’s decision appears to be contrary to the current policies of the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education. Their current guidance is based on the level of COVID transmission in a district’s county. Where, as in Monroe County, that level is at the highest, called “Substantial”, districts are supposed to stay in virtual mode.

In November, 2020, the state eased that requirement somewhat. Districts in communities experiencing substantial transmission were permitted to employ a hybrid system if they certified to the state that they would adhere to the CDC rules for schools. The PMSD executed it’s “attestation” and submitted it to the state on November 29. It was signed by Johnson and the superintendent.

Asked to comment specifically on the PMSD plan to depart from “that six-foot thing”, Pennsylvania Department of Education Press Secretary Kendall Alexander said that “school entities should continue to follow the protocols of DOH such as maintaining a social distance of at least six feet to the maximum extent feasible, masking, and proper sanitation” (emphasis added).

Each Monday the PDE updates the county classifications. On March 15, the day PMSD brought students back to in-person classes, Monroe County was still classified as having “substantial” community spread of the disease.

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