FRANCONIA — They mistakenly call it "Soudertown" (and are corrected when they do), but people all over the state know Souderton Area School District for having had full-time in-school programs this school year while other districts weren't, state Rep. Tracy Pennycuick, R-147, said at the April 29 Souderton Area School Board meeting.
"I just wanted to tell you that your name and your leadership has gotten out to Pittsburgh, Beaver County, the Poconos. They want to know how you made the decision so early on, you stuck by it, the parents were given a choice — virtual if you're not comfortable, in person if you are comfortable — and your kids are thriving," she said.
"The state is watching to see what an amazing group of people you are. You've worked with parents. You've worked with teachers. The community knows what's going on, so I just wanted to come and tell you kudos to you and the teachers and the parents that have taken this really, really hard situation and made it tenable for our kids," Pennycuick said. "You have done an outstanding job and people are noticing."
Her comments followed others by parents, teachers and community members at the meeting thanking the district for having the in-school classes. The show of support was organized by Parents for In Person Education (PIPE).
"Tonight I really just want to start by thanking you for giving teachers and students the choice this year to make decisions about our education and work environments that worked best for our families while continuing to put our students first. You did everything possible to make those environments safe and successful," said district teacher and resident Kelsey Suder.
Teacher and resident Rachel Irvin said one of her children has been in-class all year while another one took online classes the first semester, then switched to in-person.
"This year really panned out well for all of us because of the choices that we were given under less than perfect circumstances," she said.
"In retrospect, though, I have to say this year feels like one of those long, drawn-out conversations where the adult in the room needs to keep asking those age-old questions of if all your friends were going to jump off a bridge, would you?" she said.
"I want to thank the board tonight for not jumping off the bridge and for keeping us in school and not following what everybody else was doing in the county," Irvin said. "Thank you for making those decisions based on what families and teachers gave you as feedback on surveys and for keeping children first. Thank you for offering us the gift of choice. Thank you for standing in courage instead of cowering in fear."
"As a mother, my gratitude cannot be overstated. As a teacher, I want to thank you for bringing my students back to me," district teacher and parent Alyssa Piccard said.
"I know that there have been people who have claimed to be the voice of the teachers by saying that the teachers did not want to return in person or that they felt unsafe to do so. While these people are free to their opinions, they are not free to speak on my behalf," she said. "We are essential workers and we are meant to be with our students in person to do that work and I have many colleagues who agree with this sentiment."
"You truly care about our children and it shows in your words and in your fight to make this work. Thank you," parent Jill Faulkner told the board and district administrators.
"You have all clearly prioritized the health of our students, their well-being, and, of course, their education. I truly, sincerely thank you for that," district parent Anthony Petrino said.
His children are being educated online this year because of uncertainties at the beginning of the year and masking and other restrictive requirements of in-class learning, he said. He said he would like to have them return to in-person learning next year, but will only consider it if masks are not required and mitigation requirements "significantly reduced."
"While I absolutely applaud you and I can't imagine what you went through this year to bring our students back in person, I feel that we cannot stop there and I want to make this clear: It's time to unmask our children in school," Petrino said, receiving applause from the group.
"When you put a mask on a child, you're telling them that they are in danger, that they could hurt somebody, and we all know that they are not a danger, not one of them whatsoever," he said.
No Souderton Area teachers have become seriously ill from COVID-19 being transmitted at school and he suspects the same is true across the state and country, Petrino said. Teachers have now been vaccinated, but the mask mandate remains, he said.
"My question to the board," Petrino said, "is at what point will you decide to show the moral courage to take a stand against state and county mandates and fight for our children?"
"Personally, I do believe that we can take another stand and we can take a stronger stand," board President Ken Keith said.
"As we've demonstrated last fall and in previous years, we're not afraid to take a risk, we're not afraid to be first, we're not afraid to lead the way," he said, "and we are absolutely not afraid to put our children first."
Parent Erin Keeler said before coming to the meeting she asked her children what they'd like to say to the board.
"Thank you for letting me go to school. I didn't like virtual. I like to see my teacher in person and not on Zoom. And I got to see my friends in person," was the message from her 7-year-old daughter.
"Thank you for being open. Virtual was the worst. I actually like seeing people in person and getting out of the house and seeing others," her 11-year-old son said.
"I want to thank you for your willingness to go against the cultural pressure to keep our students at home. Thank you for your willingness to believe that at Souderton we could keep our kids in school and make the school year feel safe and normal as possible for our children," parent Randall Moyer said.
He also thanked the teachers for being flexible and working with the board to make the year a success.
When the schools were closed last March and replaced with virtual classes, one of her children struggled and fell behind, parent Kara Derstein said.
"That model of education did not work for him or for us. This year, he is in person and he is thriving," she said.
"I cannot even imagine what another year of online learning would have done to him," Derstein said, "or even hybrid model."
"Thank you for a job well done," parent Kaitlin Derstine told the board and administration. "Thank you for hearing our community, hearing our teachers, and supporting us and putting our kids first."
She also noted the board meeting was in person.
"You have given every effort to providing our community a voice in this critical time and I thank you," she said.
Board member Donna Scheuren thanked the speakers.
"You spoke from the heart. You spoke to fact. You spoke to real life experience and it truly touches every single board member up here," she said.
In other COVID-19 related matters:
• Superintendent Frank Gallagher said 444 persons were vaccinated in the April 24 clinic held at the school for students 16 and older.
The clinic took place in the high school cafeteria, where the board meetings are also currently held.
"That was another positive thing that we did to keep our kids healthy," Gallagher said, "and I promise you parents, as soon as the 12- to 16-year-olds are approved, you can bring them into this room on a Saturday and we'll get them vaccinated."
• The senior prom will be held within COVID mitigation guidelines on May 21, Gallagher said.
The prom and other year-end activities were not held last year because of the pandemic-related shutdown.