Board discusses potential 5 day in-person learning

Dr.+Curt+Dietrich+discusses+some+of+the+factors+the+district+must+consider+in+order+to+move+forward+with+a+plan+for+5+day+in-person+learning.

Connor Niszczak

Dr. Curt Dietrich discusses some of the factors the district must consider in order to move forward with a plan for 5 day in-person learning.

Nearly three months since hybrid learning began for all North Penn students, the North Penn School Board began discussions at their January action meeting about what could and would be needed to transition to five day in-person learning.

Before their discussion, the meeting kicked off with a video from NPSD Communications Director Bob Gillmer and Gwyn-Nor 4th graders from Mrs. Morse’s class in a “Kid School Board.” The kids wanted to show their appreciation for the nine North Penn Board Directors in honor of January being School Director Appreciation Month.

In the first Audience of Citizens, the Board heard from a number of parents strongly pushing for a rapid transition to 5-day in person learning.

“Our children in this community continue to be adversely affected by this untenable situation. After 3 months, I certainly hope there’s a robust plan to return,” parent Owen Wilcox said.

“Virtual education does not work for my family. I want to hear a plan for 5 day in-person. Nothing less,” parent Michael Lennon added.

North Penn Educational Association President Sean Devlin called in and emphasized how essential it is for all teachers to be fully vaccinated before there is an increase in students coming into schools. 

I can’t possibly sit here and say it’s okay to put teachers, who are on the front lines, into harm’s way.”

— Sean Devlin, NPEA President

“I think most teachers want to get back to 5 days, but not before the vaccine is rolled out. I can’t possibly sit here and say it’s okay to put teachers, who are on the front lines, into harm’s way…I’d ask this community to remain patient,” Devlin expressed.

The Board then ran through their monthly committee reports, hearing updates on everything from recent stimulus funds to School Nutrition Services updates.

Christian Fusco shared that the Finance Committee reviewed the tax collector compensation process, a draft of the 2021-22 fiscal budget, North Penn’s business office being awarded the Meritorious Budget Award for the sixth straight year, and the most recent round of stimulus funding; the district will receive $4.6 million. 

Dr. Elisha Gee explained how the Education/Curriculum/Instruction (ECI) committee reviewed a proposed 2021-22 calendar, which now includes the holidays of Diwali and Eid al-Fitr to be “more reflective of the diversity of the North Penn School District community.” 

As Dr. Wanda-Lewis Campbell shared, North Montco Technical Career Center recently accepted bids to renovate its main entrance, and will hold its annual open house on February 4th. Juliane Ramic explained that the North Penn Educational Foundation had its most successful month ever, raising $7,000 and receiving $6,000 in donations for its staff tribute program.

Chief Financial Officer Steve Skrocki gave his monthly update on the School Nutrition Services Curbisde Meal Pick-Up Program. As of January 21, SNS has served 974,200 free meals! The one millionth meal is expected to be served on Tuesday, January 26.

The Board then shifted into their conversation about how many students are actually attending in-person classes district wide and how much wiggle room they have in terms of allowing more students to come in on a daily basis. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Todd Bauer used attendance data from January 21 to be as current as possible. Out of 893 Hybrid 2 students that could have attended North Penn High School, 344 did (38.5%). Pennbrook had 127/267 (47.5%), Penndale had 232/400 (58%), and Pennfield had 187/259 (72.2%). Elementary schools, understandably, have a much higher attendance rate, with an average of approximately 80%.

When we look at the raw numbers of how many students are hybrid and virtual, we really need to look at how many kids are actually coming.”

— Dr. Todd Bauer, Assistant Superintendent

“When we look at the raw numbers of how many students are hybrid and virtual, we really need to look at how many kids are actually coming,” Bauer explained.

In terms of current attendance compared to pre-COVID attendance, all of the aforementioned percentages are dramatically lower. At NPHS, only 15.8% of the typical student population is in-person, Pennbrook is 17%, Penndale is 24.8%, Pennfield is 25.2%, and the elementary schools average to 33%.

Several members of the Board then wondered, since there is such a decline in student attendance, how many more students could safely be brought into the buildings while still adhering to 6 foot social-distancing guidelines.

“How many seats are there than can genuinely be filled,” Board Director Jonathan Kassa asked.

How many seats are there than can genuinely be filled?”

— Jonathan Kassa, School Board Director

The increasing lack of substitute teachers is an issue discussed at nearly every Board meeting; when it comes to 5 day in-person learning, that could factor in at the secondary schools, where students whose teachers are absent are, in some cases, gathered into their building’s IMC. If student attendance increases, that could push the limits on IMC capacities.

When substitutes or other teachers are not available for coverage, it often comes down to who is available.

“There are days when it’s whoever might be available, but we do have coverages at different times that might be a reading specialist…even the principal themself. It’s really been quite an effort for anybody who is available,” Superintendent Dr. Curt Dietrich said.

Is it an ideal setting? Absolutely not. But everyone is rallying and supporting one another.”

— Dr. Mia Kim, HR Director

“Is it an ideal setting? Absolutely not. But everyone is rallying and supporting one another,” added HR Director Dr. Mia Kim.

Dr. Dietrich has said for months how the district has dealt with substitute shortages prior to COVID, and how they need to look beyond COVID at how this situation can be improved.

“We just don’t have enough substitute teachers, particularly during this pandemic year…We really have to look, beyond pandemic, at the substitute teacher matter. We have far fewer teachers getting certified,” Dietrich explained.

Another pressing issue facing North Penn is vaccines. As Pennsylvania recently expanded vaccine group 1A to include anyone over 65, that puts tens of thousands more people ahead of teachers in the vaccine line. As the Biden administration takes control, vaccine distribution is expected to increase, something Dietrich says is vital for Montgomery County.

If the number of vaccines coming into Montgomery County does not dramatically increase, if it stays at roughly 5,000 doses per week, it would take close to a year to be able to get sufficient vaccines.”

— Dr. Curt Dietrich, Superintendent

“If the number of vaccines coming into Montgomery County does not dramatically increase, if it stays at roughly 5,000 doses per week, it would take close to a year to be able to get sufficient vaccines. That said, we’ve been given assurance that the Biden administration will increase the amount of vaccines produced,” Dietrich noted.

There was discussion amongst the Board surrounding possible assurance testing for students if  day in-person learning is implemented. Dietrich stressed how non-concrete this idea is, but he is in contact with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). One possibility mentioned was, similar to how students could return to school but had to wear a mask, if students could be allowed to report to school 5 days a week but would have to participate in assurance testing. 

The District’s next step is to send a survey out to families to gather how much interest there would be for 5 day in-person learning, and see how many students currently in hybrid, but who do not actually attend classes, would be willing to give up their spot. This survey is expected to be sent out by the end of January, and its results will play a major role in the Board’s next steps.

The meeting concluded with another audience of citizens, where the same community members called in again to react to the Board’s conversations.

“Pump the brakes,” Devlin said.

“The NPEA cannot support the reopening of schools until every teacher has had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated,” he added.

The NPEA cannot support the reopening of schools until every teacher has had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated.”

— Sean Devlin, NPEA President

“For the teachers’ union to present vaccinations of teachers as a requirement for returning kids to school five days a week…it’s ill-founded and there’s no evidence to support that,” Lennon responded.

The North Penn School Board will meet again for their February worksession on February 9 at 7pm.