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PMSD Opts for an All-Virtual Return in the Fall

SWIFTWATER – At its regular board meeting on Wednesday, August 12, the Pocono Mountain School District Board of Education voted 8-1 to open the school year on August 31 in an all-virtual mode, adopting the recommendation of the administration and teachers.

That option, the so-called “option 4”, was developed after the three original options presented to the board last month received a critical reception from parents and others in the community. A survey of parents taken earlier this month, which resulted in over 3,400 responses, saw 67% of respondents favoring a virtual option.

The lone dissent on the vote was Frank Pecci, who favored opening all schools, full time, for live in-person attendance. Addressing the proposal for full, in-person instruction, Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Robison opposed the suggestion, noting that “we cannot follow all of the CDC guidelines if we bring all of the children back.” Indeed, it does not appear that a full opening was even an option at this point. Under the Pennsylvania Department of Education Guidelines, derived from CDC recommendations, the district is required to evaluate instruction models based on the county pandemic numbers.

At the time the board adopted Option 4 earlier this week, Monroe County had an incidence rate (that is, the number of new cases per 100,000 people over seven days) of 22.4, up slightly from the 23.6 rate of the prior seven days. The PDE guidance requires the incidence rate to be ten or below before the district can consider reopening with full in-person instruction. Monroe is classified by the PDE guidance as having a “Moderate” level of community transmission, meaning the district could consider only full remote or a blended instructional plan.

The selected option was developed following a survey of parents, conducted between August 4 and 10. The district received 3,402 responses. There are approximately 8,800 students in the district, many with siblings. The district is unable to say what percentage of parents are represented by the survey responses, but they believe that the responses were numerous enough to have been “very representative.”

PMSD Parental Survey Results regarding major concerns with returning children to school in the fall. Nearly eight out of ten parents or guardians cited risk of COVID infection or transmission to other family members as a primary worry.

Nearly eight of ten respondents (78.5%) in the survey expressed great concerned that their child would contract or transmit the coronavirus to family members if there were a return to in-school instruction. About 40% were worried about emotional issues relating to the pandemic, while just under 20% said their children had pre-existing conditions raising health issues related to COVID-19.

The all-virtual option selected provides for live, face to face, virtual instruction similar to the classroom experience. The amount of live instruction (which the district calls “synchronous” instruction) varies with grade levels. The live virtual classroom instruction will be done using technology that permits the students to see one another, as well as the teacher and any materials displayed by the teacher. Each grade level will have a set schedule for the live instruction. During other times of the day, students will have assignments and prepared lessons to complete and review online and independently (termed “asynchronous” learning by the district.)

All students will follow the District curriculum using Google Classroom Suite, which was one of the technologies used after the shutdown in the spring. Teachers will assign work with weekly deadlines and be available to communicate with students and parents throughout the week using the Google Suite, including “Meet”, “Hangouts”, and email. Teachers will have virtual scheduled office hours on Wednesdays.

The amount of time students are provided with live, face to face group instruction, or “synchronous” learning, varies from a little over ten hours (610 minutes) a week for Kindergarten and First Grade, just under nine hours (530 minutes) for second graders, about six hours (365 min.) for grades four through six, nine and a half hours (560 min.) in Junior High, to nine hours for Senior High students. Their daily schedules also provide time to independent or asynchronous learning during which they maybe be assigned to watched lessons prepared and taped by PMSD teachers or complete assignments. The amount of time students are projected to devote to asynchronous learning also varies by grade level: K-1, 180-230 minutes a week; 2, 210-295 min/wk; 4-6, 275-300 mins.; and Jr-Sr High, 210 mins. Greater detail, including sample schedules, can be found on the district website (pmsd.org).

Another feature of the all-virtual opening is the Virtual Tutor program being initiated by the district. The PMSD Virtual Tutors will be district teachers selected to work with students (K-12) for remediation, individual assistance & supplementary instruction. Teachers will be designated teachers by building and grade level. Students will be able to sign up for hte tutoring on a set schedule, which will include evening hours, for sessions to begin approximately the week of September 21.

To assist parents & students to fully utilize the technology, the district will be setting up Chromebook and Google Drive Webinars focusing on using the Google Chromebook and managing a student’s Google Drive. Topics are currently planned to include connecting Chromebooks to the Internet, logging in, accessing Google Classroom, printing from he Chromebook. Uploading and downloading, and more. One-hour sessions will be offered multiple times daily in the two weeks prior to the start of school. All instruction will be planned and presented by PMSD Elementary Instructional Technology Teachers. The webinars will also be recorded and made available for future viewing.

Special Education programs will follow the district schedules, with alterations to individualized student’s schedules which will be discussed through the IEP process. Special Education Teachers & Paraprofessionals will provide additional academic supports during asynchronous learning times Related Services (Speech, OT, PT, Adapted PE, Hearing Support, O&M, Vision, etc.). IEP meetings will all be conducted remotely.

Students with IEPs will also work with Co-Teachers who will collaborate with content teachers to ensure students’ specially designed instruction is being implemented, provide interactive academic small group support daily for students on class lists via Zoom/Google Suite, and conduct at least one interactive face-face session with each student weekly. Paraprofessionals will be assigned to work with the classroom teachers and case managers and assist students with organization, classification of assignments, as well as time management issues. They will prepare pre-recorded videos for student use on various academic topics as needed, and participate in one to one sessions with students, teachers, and case managers.

In a change from the spring shut down, the PDE requires school districts to return to traditional grading scales, so pass/fail will no longer be an option for classes in which it was not available pre-COVID. The district will also be required to monitor, report, and enforce attendance. The administration is still working on the particulars of the attendance policy. Updated information will be provided to parents prior to the start of school on August 31.

Parents also have the alternative to enroll their children in the PMSD Cyber School Program, which has always been available, free of charge, to all students (K-12)

At the outset of the Superintendent’s presentation of the new option, Pecci moved to require the district to reopen with full, in-person instruction, five days a week. Board member James Gamble seconded the motion. During discussion, board member Jacquelyn Leonard appeared to speak in favor of the proposal, which led to a loud confrontation between Leonard and board member Ronnie Byrd. Byrd asked Leonard if she had children in the school (she does not), and said that children who spend time with grandparents or others at risk could pass it to them, and asked Leonard “Are you willing to accept a risk of somebody dying because you wanted them to go back to school?” A short while later, Leonard interrupted Byrd, raising her voice to complain “How dare you challenge me saying what I am saying is irrelevant because I don’t have a kid!” Rusty Johnson, the board president, stepped in to quell the argument.

Pecci withdrew his motion after the solicitor noted that the board could not vote on it until after public comment, which was scheduled for later in the agenda.

Watch the exchange between Leonard and Byrd here, courtesy of Channel 570.

The district intends to reevaluate instructional options in early October, at which time they will review pandemic-related conditions then existing to determine if a blended, or other, model would be appropriate to consider.

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