Amid challenges and concerns, Board President explains tough process for North Penn

Knight Crier editor Connor Niszczak sat down for a one-on-one Zoom interview with North Penn School Board President Tina Stoll, as the district navigates its way through Covid-19.

Amid+challenges+and+concerns%2C+Board+President+explains+tough+process+for+North+Penn

Close your eyes and imagine this.

You’re in a position where the future of 13,000 students, along with several thousand teachers, staff, parents, and community members is in your hands. You have to figure out how to keep them all safe in classrooms in the midst of a pandemic, provide equal education to those who remain at home, and support the needs of tirelessly working employees…all while being a volunteer. 

That’s what 2020 has been like for North Penn School Board President Tina Stoll.

Stoll, along with the 8 other members of the Board, has worked hundreds of hours over the past 6 months, making dozens of decisions on how and when to safely allow students to return to classrooms. Through public Board meetings nearly every week for the past 21 weeks, the Board has attempted to be as transparent as possible with the community.

“Most of the conversations we had were public. As you may know, we’re not allowed to have private conversations like that; that would be a violation of the Sunshine Act. You might’ve had me and Jonathan (Kassa) talk, for example, but the actual considerations and debating of the issues was all done publicly. If you watched them, you really got to see where our thought process was, what our concerns were, what we were contemplating,” Stoll said. 

In Mid-July, Drs. Dietrich, Bauer, and Rufo hosted a second re-opening forum, in which the three options of in-person, hybrid, and virtual were were still on the table. Then, on July 30, the Board voted to table in-person and hybrid for the time being, and remain fully virtual. 

“The administration did a phenomeonal job coming up with those three different types of educational delivery methods, but I think, as we were hearing all these news reports and, obviously, listening to Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the Montgomery County Commissioner (who is also a physcian) and the Montco Department of Health…they were talking about the positivity rate and the lack of testing ability (the fact that tests were sometimes not even good anymore by the time they came in). We were also having trouble getting PPE for schools. So there were a lot of factors that went into it that made us just not very comfortable with having the three different methods of educational delivery,” Stoll explained.   

Stoll and the Board then had to tackle fully virtual learning, and what decisions that would entail in order for all 13,000 North Penn School District students to still receive a quality education.

As much as we all might want this virus to be done and over with, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon, and we need to be able to have a truly robust virtual method”

— Tina Stoll - NPSB President

“Our focus was that we wanted to make the virtual method the most robust that it could be. The fact that we had a new learning management system with Canvas; we wanted teachers to learn that, become proficient in it, and be able to really, truly provide a high-quality virtual product. As much as we all might want this virus to be done and over with, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be over anytime soon, and we need to be able to have a truly robust virtual method,” Stoll said.

“There will be times when we have to shut down a class, or shut down a building, or, God forbid, shut down the whole district, and we’ll have to be able to transition smoothly back and forth. So we had all these debates publicly and that’s what our line of thinking was; let’s make this virtual method the best that it could possibly be. We’re going to be having to use it for a while,” Stoll added.

As 3rd-12th grade students prepare to return to their classrooms on November 9th, maintaining that high-quality education delivery method is vital for Stoll and the Board. In September, they authorized the purchase of 800 flat screen TVs for each classroom, so students who join class from home will apear apear on the screen, alongside their classmates in the building. Communications Director Bob Gillmer and his team have worked nonstop the past month overseeing the delivery, assembly, and distribution of these TVs across the District.

“Mr. Gillmer and his department, they’ve all done so much. I really just cannot say enough good things about all the work that they have done. I know Mr. Gillmer was feeling a lot of pressure, getting all that equipment in and getting it together; it’s only like the whole district is watching him to see if he can do it in time! Everybody chipped in, and the support staff was helping put the stuff together. I will say that although I’ve gotten down about the situation, I try to look at the positives and see how many people have really, really stepped up. North Penn Strong is what we always say, and it truly is the truth. People have done what they’ve needed to do to help and I deeply appreciate that,” Stoll said.

I will say that although I’ve gotten down about the situation, I try to look at the positives and see how many people have really, really stepped up. North Penn Strong is what we always say, and it truly is the truth”

— Tina Stoll- NPSB President

With the installation of 800 TVs, along with the steady increase of technology used by the District over the past several years, questions have arisen over what the future of NPSD education could look like post-COVID.

“For the foreseeable future, [COVID}’s definitely going to be with us. I’m sure that we’ll find ways to make use of this technology at some point. I wish I could predict the future. It would make my life a lot easier if I could tell people ‘oh, it’s going to be over at such and such a date. Hang in there, just a couple more months,'” Stoll said.

As the Board was drawing closer to approving the hybrid model, there were concerns by parents and Board members over setting clear guidelines and metrics regarding what would have to happen for a classroom, school, or the District to re-close.

“We’ve talked with Dr. Arkoosh, and anything with a positivity rate of over 8% is when we would close it again. Fortunately, our positivity rate has been 3% or less since June, so Montco has done a phenomenal job, due to our leadership and everybody doing what they need to do; wearing a mask and socially distancing. Montco has done a phenomenal job of keeping that positivity rate down (I think last week was around 2.8%). If we can keep that going, maybe we can expand to opening the schools up to more people. That is the hope. I’m sure there’s concern, going into the fall and winter, of predicted spikes, so we will definitely be monitoring things closely. I am hopeful that we’ll be able to balance some form of in-peron instruction while keeping everybody as safe as possible,” Stoll explained.

Stoll emphasized the frustration felt by the Board when members of the community make blanket statements such as ”open the schools!” COVID-19 has not been an easy situation for anyone, but the Board procedures involve decision making much more complex than many people may see from the outside. 

“There’s people who have told me ‘children aren’t getting sick, children don’t have it.’ Well maybe that’s because children have been home. I think we will find that out…obviously, when people tell us ‘open up the schools,’ there is nothing we want more than to open the schools and get back to normal. This has been such a difficult situation to work through at every level. The administration has been working probably 80+ hour weeks since March. No lie. The teachers have been learning how to do this virtual method of education while preparing for the in-person while also balancing their families. The support staff has been trying to help and do everything they can. This has been, just, quite the experience for everybody. I think that going back to normal would be an awesome thing to be able to do, but we have to make sure we do it safely. We all look forward to that day. Believe me,” Stoll said.

Another major element of re-opening that’s been discussed at length is contact tracing and the essential role it will play in limiting COVID-19 transmission throughout North Penn schools.

“We’re working with the Montco DOH, and it’s their job to do the contact tracing; they will come in and have their people notify whoever needs to be notified if they were in contact with somebody or they need to isolate or they need to be quarantined. We are also going to have our own staff nurse- a “COVID-Coordinator” working in conjunction with the nurses across the district -so if the county is too overwhelmed with cases, and that could happen (they could be too busy in too many districts…contact tracing can quickly get huge), so we’ll have our own designated person in the district responsible for helping with contact tracing. In theory, it should work quickly and efficiently, but I think that also will depend on how many cases there are. It is truly incumbent on everybody to do their part; maintain social distancing and wear your mask,” Stoll said. 

“People are afraid of being sick-shamed or blamed. I wouldn’t want to be blamed because I got sick and then my school had to shut down. I get that, but I think that, ultimately, the responsible thing is to comply with the contact tracing so people are informed. The more transparent that we are, the more trust the community will have, and that is key in getting through this. People have to trust that we are not hiding anything and that we’re being as transparent as possible. The more that we can encourage everybody to cooperate and be transparent. Not sick shame anybody, but just make sure that people are complying and doing what they need to do; that will go a long way in making people feel comfortable in sending their children to school and knowing that if there is an issue, it will be taken care of,” Stoll added.

People are afraid of being sick-shamed or blamed. I wouldn’t want to be blamed because I got sick and then my school had to shut down. I get that, but I think that, ultimately, the responsible thing is to comply with the contact tracing so people are informed. The more transparent that we are, the more trust the community will have, and that is key in getting through this.”

— Tina Stloll

While the Board worked through a return to school plan over the past months, the Audience of Citizens has seen many parents make comparisons between North Penn and other Montgomery and Bucks County school districts. I asked Stoll if those comparisons are legitimate.

“I think sometimes it depends. Sometimes when we get compared to Bucks County schools…Bucks County has public health officials with slightly different interpretations that Montgomery County officials. For example, one official said 3 feet is enough social distancing as opposed to 6 feet. Our staff, administration, and the Board feel very strongly that 6 feet is the CDC recommended guidelines, and we’re going to stick with that. So sometimes when those comparisons come up, like if you compare us to a school in Montco, some districts have multiple buildings, or a smaller high school. We have a particularly large high school; there’s 3,000 kids at that school, not even including staff. Even if you have hybrid and have half the people come in, that’s still 1,500 students; that’s a lot of people you’re dealing with. I think our sheer size works for us in a lot of ways, but in this particular instance, it kind of works against us as far as socially distancing,” Stoll explained.

Stoll has made connections with fellow School Board directors across our area during this time, virtually gathering to compare notes, and one thing they all share is that no one would have ever planned to have to conquer an adversary this extreme during their term.

“I’ve gotten to know a lot of School Board directors in our county, and everybody feels the same way; no one ran thinking that this is what we’d have to deal with. It’s obviously our privilege to represent the community, but it has been a lot of work. It’s easily 20-30 hours a week of volunteer time when you consider all the extra meetings, all the emails I respond to, reading all the documents, and trying to be as informed as possible; it’s been a lot. There’s times when I’ve gotten discouraged, because there’s a lot of other things we wanted to work on.  I ran on infrastructure; I wanted to focus on the high school and renovating that, I think it’s long overdue. We were looking to do the 9th Grade Center, and that’s all been pushed off to the back burner now due to COVID, and I hope that we can still proceed with that project at some point. It’s been overwhelming at times. Sometimes it’s really…I don’t want to say I’ve broken down or anything, but it’s gotten close sometimes. We all love NP, we want the best for NP, it’s very hard to make 13,000 students, parents, taxpayers; getting everybody on the same page is impossible. It’s hard to keep everyone happy,” Stoll explained.

Stoll shared that the overwhelming majority of response from the community has been constructive criticism and positive feedback, but she has dealt with some disrespectful comments and minor harassment.  

Overwhelmingly, when people email us, they share constructive criticism or suggestions. They’ll say ‘this isn’t really working for me or for my child, could you consider this?’ That’s been the overwhelming response, and I’m happy to answer emails like that, or respond to comments like that.”

— Tina Stoll

“Sometimes it’s difficult when you have people calling us names or saying things that are not constructive or helpful, and we’ve had a fair share of that. Overwhelmingly, when people email us, they share constructive criticism or suggestions. They’ll say ‘this isn’t really working for me or for my child, could you consider this?’ That’s been the overwhelming response, and I’m happy to answer emails like that, or respond to comments like that. But, there’s been the occasional person that has been less than polite and not constructive at all. That I don’t find helpful, and that’s when I find it frustrating; that gets me sometimes. I know that this situation is hard for everybody, and I try to chalk it up to that; this is an unprecedented situation and people are very stressed. We have to bare that in mind when we respond to people,” Stoll said.

The next steps for Stoll and the Board are to closely monitor how hybrid learning goes beginning November 9th, which will hopefully lead to a smooth transition into a slightly more “normal” school year.

“The next steps are just to see how it goes. We want to make sure that everything we’ve done is working properly and the way it should be, and that everyone reaches a certain level of comfort. This has been a very different year, and we want to make sure that we keep the disruptions to a minimum, and I think that’s key; especially for the younger kids. It’s tough. I think going into the next month, we have to see how people settle in; hopefully it will be a smooth transition. That’s what I’m hoping for anyway,” Stoll said.

“Again, I wish I had that crystal ball. I would hope that if things continue to go well in Montgomery County and we make it through the winter, hopefully we can do something in the spring with opening up more opportunities to bring more people in. Whatever the situation is, I know our number one priority will be to do it safely. We will not do anything that will put the work we’ve done so far at risk.”