Chambersburg schools to open virtually

Chambersburg Area School District schools will open virtually Aug. 24, school board members decided in a 7-2 vote Tuesday.

The decision came after the board listened to over an hour of public comments submitted by email from CASD parents and taxpayers prior to the virtual meeting, streamed live on You Tube.

Most of The comments favored giving parents the choice of at least a hybrid system this fall or the all-virtual option.

The board allots a half-hour period the beginning of its meeting for public comment. Board President Dana Baker interrupted the reading of comments at 7:45 p.m, asking how many were still waiting to be heard.

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Chambersburg schools
Dr. Dana Baker, CASD board president

“Eleven pages,” was the answer. Baker asked for a vote to hear the rest of the comments. At that time You Tube was showing over 1,200 viewers online, double the number listening when the meeting opened at just after 7 p.m.

The audience hung in through another half hour of comments; a lengthy explanation of the totally virtual concept recommended by the administration, and often raucous discussion before the vote.

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Summing up the comments

Most favored at least some form of in-person instruction when school opens later this month. Points included:

  • “Education is essential and should be conducted in person”
  • ”Children need social interaction (with) teachers and other students”
  • ”All children need social interaction, not isolation”
  • ”School is a safe place in an unsafe world for them”
  • ”Kids need interactive education… look outside the box”
  • ”The benefits (of in-school instruction) far outweigh the risks.
  • “For some, an all virtual option might work. For others it is not a good option.”

Other comments included arguments for an in-person classroom option, or at least a hybrid system combining face-to-face instruction with online classes.

Working parents argued that they couldn’t afford child care. A mental health professional cited an increase in depression and other mental health issues among children Since schools closed five months ago. Some pointed to a lack of internet access in some areas of the dstrict.

”No matter what you decide, someone is not going to be happy,” one parent wrote. “Base your decision on what is best for our children, and not just comfortable for someone else.”

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The administration’s argument

Chambersburg schools
Dr. Dion Betts, CASDSuperintendent

Superintendent Dion Betts argued for virtual online classrooms for all students when classes begin this month.

He cited the state Department of Health’s figures showing a 7% positive COVID-19 test rate for Franklin County. Of those cases, he said 75% of them live in the two zip codes making up CASD, while that same geographical area contains 45% of the county’s population.

“This summer a number of staff and principals were infected,” he said.

He didn‘t say what they were infected with but the discussion was centered around the coronavirus. The district has had trouble obtaining substitute teachers for several years when teachers call in sick during flu season, he said.

The administration took staffing issues into consideration, and weighed the logistics of enforcing masking and social distancing, as well as contact tracing.

“This is not an exact science,” Betts said. “It’s uncharted territory.

The board’s decision

The board had questions, but it was hard at times to distinguish exactly which board member was speaking. The screen showed a photo of the agenda the entire meeting, not board members.

Several members expressed a desire to offer parents a choice between in person classes and a cyber school setting. They questioned the administration closely about plan details, such as technology and alternatives for students without internet access.

At times the discussion got heated; at other times confusing.

Comments included:

  • “This whole thing has become so politicized. The whole situation is tearing apart the fabric of our society.”
  • ”The vast majority of emails I got from parents, kids want to go back (to classrooms). I consider our educators essential workers, Essential workers don’t have options, They have to work.” (Discussing The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA or Act))
  • ”It comes down to parents making a choice. We all have risks.”

Heated disagreements

Chambersburg schools
CASD Board Member Ed Norcross

At one point Board Member Ed Norcross pointed out that the administration presented the board with a hybrid plan last month. That plan included two days of in-class instruction and three days of virtual classes at the high school level to meet social distancing guidelines. Elementary and Middle School students would go to school the regular week under that plan

“What’s the benchmark for changing,” he asked. “I’m disheartened… how can we make a decision when the benchmark keeps changing?”

At one point in the discussion Betts angrily accused Norcross of criticizing the administration.

“That’s the second time in a month when you don’t get your way you criticize the administration,” he said. “That has a ripple effect. I’m not going to let you sit here and continue.”

The confrontation sounded hot and heavy, although video footage of the confrontation was not available. Baker threatened to adjourn the meeting to bring it back under control.

Athletics, yes; classrooms, no

While district classrooms will be empty when school starts Aug. 24, many of the district’s 450 student-athletes have been on the fields doing volunteer workouts for about two months now.

“Athletics cannot be done virtually,” Athletic Director Jeremy Flores told the board. The fact that all fall athletics except volleyball are outdoor sports was a factor in deciding to move ahead with the sports program also.

While deciding the athletics program needed to go forward, Flores said it doesn’t mean the program will proceed as usual.

Non-conference games and possibly scrimmages will be eliminated, and the season won’t start until Sept. 4. Details are being worked out for handling spectator issues and ticket sales if spectators are allowed at games.

CASHS Principal Brad Ocker said extracurricular activities will be available under the virtual plan, but they would all be carried out virtually.

The vote for virtual classrooms

The board meeting started about 15 minutes late because an executive session ran over its allotted time. It was almost midnight went the board voted 7-2 to accept the administration’s recommendation to start school virtually.

Norcross and Dr. Mark Schurr voted against the plan.

The administration suggested revisiting the issue two weeks before the end of the first marking period. The board wanted monthly reports, however.

Baker said Wednesday that he felt the district has “a fairly doable plan” under the circumstances.

Assistant Superintendent Mark Long and the district’s technology department Is working on identifying students without internet access, he said.

They are considering options like mobile hotspots and agreements with area churches and other entities for students to access internet connections from parking lots.

Meanwhile, the board will look at options to resume in-school instruction as soon as it is safe for students, teachers and staff.

“I do want to see that sooner rather than later,” Baker said.

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