Cheltenham School District administration recommends fully virtual fall semester

In a letter to Cheltenham School District families, Superintendant Dr. Wagner Marseille shared that the school’s administration will propose to the Cheltenham School Board a 100% virtual model for the fall semester of the 2020-2021 school year. The board will make the final determination during its August 3rd meeting at which the presentation will be made.

From the letter:

After careful consideration, at the August 3 ( special board meeting, I will recommend to our board of school directors a full virtual model for the fall semester for all students. My administration will continue to monitor this evolving situation with the possibility of reopening in the future under a hybrid (combination of in-person and virtual instruction) or full in-person model depending on the mitigation of COVID-19. What I’m putting forth to the board is but a recommendation and, ultimately, the board will discuss the recommendation publicly to determine whether to proceed with and/or make modifications to the plan.

My recommendation does not come lightly and I understand the significant challenges many of you will face because of it. Childcare, socialization and virtual instruction are just some of the issues which will bring anxiety and trepidation. I want our students to return to a sense of normal schooling in an environment with which they are familiar and comfortable. No one is more eager to go back than my daughter. She reminds me every day of her wish to return to school, see her friends and meet her new teacher. She was looking forward to having pizza as a lunch option every day at Elkins Park. I want all those things and more for her.

I can live with the recommendation to open in a fully virtual model. I can’t live with returning our students and staff too soon and risking or jeopardizing their lives.

COVID-19-related guidelines and mitigation measures are constantly changing. Though Montgomery County’s COVID-19 positivity rate is below 5%, other counties’ rates are rising above that mark, making a COVID-19-related instruction disruption a matter of “when,” not “if.” The upcoming influenza (flu) season will further complicate an in-person opening. Flu and COVID-19 share similar symptoms, and discerning between them may be difficult, making testing essential to confirm a diagnosis.

While many of us imagined that, at this point in time we would be in a better place as a country with mitigating the spread of COVID-19 and would be preparing to open schools in a traditional sense, we are seeing an alarming increase in cases in Pennsylvania and across the country. Recently, the 21 Montgomery County superintendents submitted a letter to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Dr. Pedro Rivera, and Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine expressing our ongoing, collective concerns with the tasks being asked of us. In the letter, we expressed our concerns with the confusing and often conflicting (and sometimes politicized and divisive) guidance we receive from so many agencies. We shared our concern with welcoming students and staff to our buildings, where social distancing guidelines and face-covering mandates present significant challenges to teaching and learning. We shared our concerns about increases in COVID-19 cases with schools opening right around the corner.

Concurrently, Pennsylvania State Educators Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey, who represents more than 180,000 Pennsylvania educators, penned a similar letter to Governor Wolf and Secretary Rivera focusing on the association’s concern about students and staff health risks with in-person instruction, and indicating the increasing number of Pennsylvania educators and parents/guardians concerned with the health risks associated with reopening for in-person instruction. Our faculty and staff have also shared their concerns with the safety implications of in-person instruction.

To say these past six months have been challenging for all of us would be a gross understatement. How to reopen schools has kept me up many nights, an experience I’m sure I share with you as you ruminate over how your child(ren) will return to school, you will return to work, and the world will return to normal.

Further in the letter details on the results of a reopening survey that 3,000+ families participated in. Below are a snapshot of the results:

  • A majority of respondents rated “Student and Staff Safety” as a top priority upon returning to school.  
  • Thirty-two percent of our families indicated a hybrid model would present a significant childcare challenge. Of those, an overwhelming majority indicated they would need childcare regardless of the model the district implements.
  • Forty-four percent of respondents indicated if school opens as usual they would prefer a fully remote learning experience for child(ren).
  • Forty percent of respondents indicated regardless of what option is chosen to return, they prefer a fully remote learning experience. 
  • An overwhelming number of respondents indicated a desire for more direct instruction with a teacher online; recording/archiving lessons; and a daily schedule of expected interaction with students/staff. 
  • Thirty-five percent of respondents indicated they will not use district transportation and will make their own transportation arrangements, while 35% indicated they would only use the bus if students were spaced six feet apart and the bus is cleaned between runs. 

You can find details on how to participate in the August 3rd meeting here. It will be held at 8:00 p.m.