FRANCONIA — Having three weeks of hybrid learning at the beginning of the school year for students who had been signed up for full-time in-class learning is a way of ramping up to and phasing in this year's classes, but doesn't change the district's commitment to the full-time classes, district officials said at the Aug. 27 Souderton Area School Board meeting at which the board formally approved the hybrid start.

“The hours of dedication put forth on this return plan have been many. Those hours could've easily been cast aside had we just agreed to go 100 percent virtual weeks ago, even a month ago, like so many other districts in our county, yet we refused to make a quick rush to judgment or disregard the parent questionnaires that voted 75 percent for in-person learning to 25 percent virtual learning,” board member Donna Scheuren said. “Shame on those districts that didn't even try to come up with a plan that incorporated what the majority of parents requested regarding their children's best interests.”

Under the revised plan, the start of school for the about 4,610 students who will be having in-school classes and the about 1,620 who will be taking online classes, will be September 8, a week later than previously planned. For the first three weeks, the in-school students will have a hybrid of in-class and online learning, with the full-time in-class learning scheduled to start Sept. 29, if the county's level of positive coronavirus tests remains less than five percent, which it currently is.

“We are one of the few districts where the staff was willing to do what needed to be done to get children back in school,” Superintendent Frank Gallagher said. “When we talk about equity, this is equity. This is getting every child an opportunity to come into school and learn and grow and do wonderful things and get their mental health needs taken care of, get to see their friends, get to prepare for college.”

Community support continues to be needed to fight the pandemic, he said, telling everyone to wear masks and avoid gatherings.

During the meeting, Gallagher, Assistant Superintendent and Director of Human Resources Christopher Hey and Director of Pupil Services Megan Zweiback outlined the reopening plans.

Bus schedules for those attending classes at the schools had begun to be emailed out that day, with teacher assignments and student schedules set to go out the week of Sept. 2, Hey said.

Students taking online courses from home will follow a similar schedule to if they were in class, he said. The online students will be able to participate in school athletics, Gallagher said.

Along with unanimously approving the school reopening plan, the board also unanimously approved having fall sports.

Gov. Tom Wolf had earlier recommended that high school sports not begin again until at least January, but the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association said high schools could have sports this fall and that the school districts should each decide whether their district would participate.

Souderton's approval follows the guidance of the PIAA and the Montgomery County Department of Health, Hey said.

Under the current guidelines, spectators will not be allowed to attend the fall sports competitions, but that will be reviewed each week, Hey and Zweiback said.

Board President Ken Keith said he realizes parents and other residents are getting inundated with information about the school plans and suggested replaying the video from the board meeting (which is posted on the district website), checking for information on the website, and checking with the schools if more information is needed.

“If you have questions, I can't stress this enough, reach out. We will make time to answer those questions for you,” Keith said, “and rest assured, after a week or two, it'll seem like old hat like it is every year. There's nothing normal about this year, I realize that, but we're gonna make it the very best we can and the most normal experience we can.”

The school board meeting, itself, was a hybrid of sorts, with some board members and administrators in the board meeting room, socially distancing and wearing a mask when not speaking, and others taking part on line, Gallagher said.

All public comment, which Hey summarized and read portions of, was done by email.

The public comments included 16 supporting in-person schooling and at least one favoring virtual learning, Hey said. There were also some that said the district had given insufficient notice about the change to hybrid for the first three weeks, he said.

Hey also read from a comment submitted by Carol Luciani, president of the Souderton Area Education Association.

“We are looking forward to doing a job we love, whether it be in our physical schools or virtually in the Souderton Area Online Academy,” Luciani wrote.

It's important that safety precautions and scientific data and guidelines be followed, though, she said.

“Everyone wants to get back to normal, but that isn't something we can rush at the expense of the health and safety of our students, faculty and staff and families,” she wrote. “If we want to get back to normal, everyone has to follow the rules.”

Hey also read a comment from resident Veronica Moeller who said she was once again asking the district to engage in a discussion about race and equity, as well as asking for an update on what a district committee on the topic had completed and about developing anti-racist curriculum.

“Shame on you for the lack of urgency on what your community has begged for,” Moeller wrote.

“As I mentioned earlier in this meeting, the fact that everybody is so important to this organization is the reason we are opening up school,” Gallagher said. “That's the reason, to give all children an equitable chance to learn, across every race, across every group. We, quite frankly, wanna do the equity thing right and to do it right, we need to get school open, and with all the changing guidelines that have happened through the summer, our band width and our brains have been focusing on getting school open with the constant changing guidelines.”

He said more of an update will be given at the board's next meeting.

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