PITTSBURGH -- The North Hills School District Board of Education voted Thursday night to approve the district’s Phased Reopening Health and Safety Plan.
The plan, presented by Superintendent Dr. Patrick Mannarino prior to the vote and available in its entirety on our website, follows the phased reopening guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and includes operating models that align with each of the governor’s three COVID-19 phases (Red, Yellow and Green). It must be submitted to the state prior to the start of the school year.
There are parts of the plan, however, that do not meet all current CDC guidelines, a point of disappointment and discouragement among board members and administrators alike.
School Board President Allison Mathis expressed her frustration with the state and Department of Education for asking districts to create plans that must adjust with the ever changing guidelines and align with phases the state has not indicated they plan to return to, even as cases continue to climb in counties like Allegheny.
"We’re in the green phase yet our local case counts are much higher than they were when we were in the red phase this spring,” she said during Thursday's meeting, adding,”The whole thing is like an exercise in futility."
Board members including Phil Little, Sandra Kozera and Deanna Philpott agreed, upset with the lack of support at the county and state level to make the plan all encompassing to answer all of the questions sought by our families about reopening school.
"It’s not the whole picture and we don’t have the ability to provide the whole picture so it’s been a very frustrating experience,” said Ms. Kozera.
"When is it safe to go back? No guiding agencies have given us the information about when it is safe to go back. They’re leaving it up to us. That’s why this document was so frustrating,” said Dr. Mannarino. “It asks us to follow CDC guidelines, which are always changing. If we could have some metrics as to when our buildings are safe to reenter, we would have a better understanding as to when we could resume in-person instruction."
While the plan meets most CDC guidelines, parts of the plan fall short including the district’s inability to space all desks six feet apart in all classrooms in a traditional, five-day a week in-person operating model. It’s also not possible to keep students six feet apart while eating without a mask on as the state's new face covering order requires.
Still, board members felt the district did its absolute best in creating the plan and thus it passed unanimously.
"I am going to personally vote for this because I trust the superintendent and the administration to make the right decisions but I have to say I have a lot of problems with this document as a whole,” said Mrs. Mathis.
With the inadequacies uncovered in developing the health and safety plan, lack of clear metrics on when it’s safe to reopen schools and a daily COVID-19 case count in Allegheny County typically in the triple digits, the North Hills School District is preparing to reopen for the 2020-21 school year solely online.
"If I had to give my recommendation tonight for opening schools I would recommend the district reopen in a virtual model,” Dr. Mannarino said Thursday.
He continued, “I know that’s not easy. And I know that’s not something anyone wants to hear. And I don’t want to hear it as a parent either, but when you look at what’s going to be the best for the health, safety and well-being of our students and our staff members [and] what’s going to give the opportunity to get to in-person instruction at some point in the 2020-21 school year, [we have to be] very wise about what we do as we enter our school year." Watch his full remarks.
Should we enter the school year in a virtual model, it will not look like it did in the spring. Teachers will use Google Classroom, Zoom and other platforms as designated like they did in March, April and May, but the instruction will include live lessons at set class times and opportunities to engage and connect with students in real time daily. The district is working on a plan to make all live instruction on demand if a student cannot attend live or needs to re-watch later for further explanation.
Should the district start virtual, we would also define a time period as to how long the virtual instruction would continue, initially looking at five and nine week benchmarks of Oct. 2 and Oct. 30 to potentially switch the model.
During the first week of school, students, divided into four groups alphabetically by last name, would also attend one full day in school Aug. 25-28 to meet their teacher and receive their district iPad and other supplies.
The final decision on how school will begin Aug. 25 will be made during the Aug. 6 school board meeting.
"Unless things dramatically change in Allegheny County and the numbers get significantly better in the next two weeks, my recommendation is going to be that we open virtually,” said Dr. Mannarino.
Complete reopening information is available here. Reopening FAQs can be found here.