FRANCONIA — Souderton Area School District is prepared for the county-ordered temporary move to virtual learning around the Thanksgiving holiday, but anxious for students to then return to in-person learning, district officials said at the November 19 Souderton Area School Board meeting.
About three-quarters of the district's 6,200 students have been in class five days a week since the end of September, with the other quarter taking classes online.
Following a sharp increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, along with concerns that Thanksgiving get-togethers would lead to more spread of the virus, the Montgomery County Board of Health voted schools would have to go all virtual or remote for the two weeks from Nov. 23 through Dec. 6. That decision brought protests from parents who said students should be allowed to continue having in-person classes. In Souderton Area, parent-teacher conferences, which already were scheduled to happen virtually, are happening the first week, during which students would not be in school, so the move won't have a big impact on the district, Superintendent Frank Gallagher previously said.
“As you know, our district led the way in returning safely to in-person education while providing a virtual option for parents who chose it. We have proven our in-person learning model safe and from the outpouring of support we have received from parents, guardians, and even students directly, we as a board and administration find comfort in how well this plan was received,” board President Ken Keith said at the meeting.
“We will comply with the mandated two-week shift to virtual learning, but that does not mean our district has any plans to remain virtual,” he said. “We will stay informed, seek all information we can, trust in the science, and do all we can to remain open. We firmly believe in options, but we also firmly believe in the value of in-person education.”
Gallagher said he was assured by Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Dr. Valerie Arkoosh that in-person learning will resume Dec. 7.
He also advised people to choose their Thanksgiving plans wisely.
Thanksgiving is usually a time for people to get together with extended families, but this year is different, he said.
“Unfortunately, this year, that's gonna be through Zoom or other means, but I hope our community takes this seriously so we can keep this going, keep school going in person,” Gallagher said.
“Our teachers want to be in school for in-school instruction,” he said. “We're going to be back December 7.”
That could change if the state ordered the schools to remain virtual, he said, “but we are not hearing that that's gonna happen.”
“Folks, we couldn't do this without each other. We couldn't do what Souderton has accomplished without each other's support,” Gallagher said, thanking what he said is an “incredible” team of people.
The board meeting representing a congratulatory moment for what the district has done, board Vice President Donna Scheuren said.
“This board and this administration was one of the few school districts in Montgomery County to actually take into account the parent questionnaires that were submitted from all over our school district where we chose to give both an in-person and a virtual learning to our families and what worked best for them in their personal situations,” she said.
“We set a goal that even if the virus were to shut us down, if we could make it 'til Thanksgiving, our students would be at least three months ahead of all other districts in the county and we have hit that goal,” Scheuren said, “and, although some of us are pretty shook up by the mandate to go virtual, we're hoping and praying that it does not disrupt our organization and very regimented routine for the students and staff in our buildings. We keep our fingers crossed and we're gonna hold Dr. Arkoosh to that assertion that we will be back on December 7.”
Noting that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) said the safest place for students is in school, Scheuren said Souderton Area School District helped provide some of the data that led to that conclusion and that the local officials showed the national ones “what real leadership is all about.”
The board also heard an emailed public comment from a parent who said the district had set up a successful model for in-person learning and asked several questions related to the move to virtual.
“It's gonna be much different than in March. Keep in mind, in March we had a couple hours notice before we had to shut down. This is a very different situation,” Gallagher said.
People need to keep cooperating and following the rules and be careful what they do outside of school, he said.
Keith said the district is prepared to provide virtual learning programs.
“Although we are traditionally a brick and mortar facility, I think we've evolved quite a bit out of necessity, and we are as prepared as we humanly can be,” he said. “Our desire, though, is absolutely to be back here on December 7 and then throughout the remainder of the year until our kids go back for summer vacation in the middle of June.”