FRANCONIA — With five-day-a-week in-class instruction about to start for those who chose that option, the highest priority is making sure that happens safely, the district superintendent and school board president said at the Sept. 24 Souderton Area School Board meeting.
After initially planning to have the five-day option available from the beginning of the school year, the district pivoted in August to delaying the start of school one week, then having three weeks of students receiving a hybrid of in-class and online instruction before having the five-day in-class instruction beginning Sept. 29.
The district also has the Souderton Area Online Academy, which provides full online instruction for those who chose that option. About three-quarters picked the in-school option, with about one-quarter choosing virtual.
Following positive test results for COVID-19 in at least three persons at West Broad Street Elementary School, that school was switched to virtual classes for two weeks beginning Friday, Sept. 18 and scheduled to have the building reopen on Friday, Oct. 2. The district's nine other school buildings remain open.
At the Sept. 24 board meeting, Carol Luciani, president of the Souderton Area Education Association, who raised similar concerns in August, addressed the board.
With in-person attendance at the meeting restricted because of the coronavirus-related guidelines on gatherings, Luciani's comments were submitted in writing and read aloud by Assistant Superintendent and Director of Human Resources Christopher Hey.
The teachers are committed to education and looking out for the welfare of all children, along with being eager to return to school as normal, Luciani wrote.
“We know the best option for students is face-to-face interaction with their teachers and peers. We also know that measures need to be in place to make sure that is done safely,” she wrote.
She told the board that, “there is now concern more than ever that as a district we are not prepared to safely reopen our doors on Tuesday to all of our students who chose in-person education.”
The district's efforts to make changes in the school buildings are commendable, she wrote, but there are times when the guidelines for six foot separations cannot be maintained.
“A 6-foot separation is not possible for many in the current hybrid. How will we make that work on Sept. 29 with everyone back in our buildings and large class sizes?” she asked. “We can't and that puts everyone at risk — students, families, community members, as well as all our district personnel.”
The district is following the guidelines for the separation distances, Superintendent Frank Gallagher said.
“It's three, four and six feet and we've said that from the beginning. We say six feet when feasible. That's the state guideline,” he said.
The 6-foot separation is not a mandate, he said.
“Face coverings are the most important tool to defend us against this virus and face coverings are monitored,” Gallagher said. “Our students have been amazing in complying with that. We were worried about students, but they have been excellent at complying with the face covering mandate, and that is a mandate.”
The district continues to work with the county on its plans, he said.
“I want to just stress to the parents that safety is number one,” Gallagher said.
The plans can also be changed if necessary, he said.
“If we have to pivot, we will pivot. That's how our plan is designed,” he said.
“This isn't going away any time soon. There's possible spikes in the wintertime and we will have to make sure that we address them,” Gallagher said. “I know it's frustrating. I know it's challenging, but we are in a year of pivoting.”
Board President Ken Keith thanked the community for its support.
“We heard you and we sought a way to bring our kids back and provide you an option. For those who wanted virtual, we provided that. For those who wanted in-person, we provided that,” he said. “Paramount, as Dr. Gallagher said, is health and safety. That is the top line, the bottom line and the middle line,” Keith said. “We will continue to do everything we can to maintain a safe and healthy environment for our children as well as our staff here in Souderton Area School District.”
In other matters at the meeting:
• Gallagher gave an update on work being done to fight discrimination and increase equity.
New members, including parents, parents of color, and community members, are being added to the Equity Committee, he said.
He said he has signed up for a workshop series on topics including combating hatred, implicit bias in schools, culturally relevant leadership and working with children in poverty.
He's already received the first workshop, which is presented virtually, he said.
“I watch it live during a lunchtime meeting, but then they send it to members to share with your staff, with your committee, so we'll be using that for some early work in the committee,” Gallagher said.
The Montgomery County Intermediate Unit will also be providing a series on equity issues beginning in October, he said.
With the return of students to the school buildings, a multicultural club started three years ago at the high school will restart, Gallagher said.
The club brought in guest speakers who talked with the students about various topics, he said.
There are plans to also have similar clubs in other district schools, he said.
The district wants to make sure its curriculum tells the stories coming out of important events such as the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution's 14th amendment and woman's suffrage, he said.
“Citizens, students need to really understand the true values of the United States of America,” Gallagher said.
A section will also be added to the district website about equity issues, he said.
• A moment of silence was held for Dina Palski, who was a teacher in the Souderton Area district for 27 years before dying of cancer on Sept. 19. She started at Lower Salford Elementary School, then taught at Oak Ridge Elementary School.
“She was able to reach every student she had and she always understood what her students needed,” Gallagher said.
“She challenged you, but she had this electric laugh,” he said. “She had a great sense of humor.”
Even while on leave with cancer, she continued taking part in professional development programs, he said.
“She attended almost every Oak Ridge faculty meeting virtually,” Gallagher said.
Donations may be made to the Indian Valley Ed Foundation, 760 Lower Rd., Souderton, PA 18964 for an innovative “Play to Learn” grant to be established in Palski's name for teachers in the Souderton Area School District, obituary information says.