First Day at Manor Middle School

Students are dismissed after their first day of school at Manor Middle School Monday August 31, 2020.

When educators said this would be an unprecedented school year, they weren’t lying.

After spending months discussing how to safely reopen schools this fall, officials at several Lancaster County school districts are now reevaluating their initial reopening plans.

At least four school districts have considered adding more in-person learning to their original plans.

But with changes to instructional models come increased concerns over whether students can stay socially distanced, a practice public health experts say is vital to mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

The threat posed by the virus has not eased in recent weeks. The number of positive test results in Lancaster County has grown since late last month, when most county schools resumed instruction for the fall. The 14-day rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Lancaster County was at 97 on Sept. 25, up slightly from 95 on Aug. 25.

For some parents, the rush to return to in-person learning is premature.

“It should stay the way that it is at least until the spring, when cold and flu season is over,” said Andrea Zelinski, 40, a Penn Manor parent from Conestoga.

Penn Manor

The Penn Manor school board on Sept. 21 voted 5-4 in favor of phasing in full-time in-person instruction.

Currently, grades three through 12 are following a hybrid model in which students attend in-person classes two days a week, with the remainder of the week online. Students in kindergarten through second grade are following a traditional in-person schedule.

Under the approved transition, students requiring special education services and students learning English as a second language will return Sept. 28. The district’s board will reevaluate whether it is safe to bring more students back at its Nov. 2 meeting.

Next, the district would phase students back in according to grade. Grades three through seven, nine and 12 would return Nov. 9. Students in grades eight, 10 and 11 would return Nov. 16.

Zelinski said both she and her twin daughters, who are in eighth grade, aren’t comfortable with full-time in-person instruction, “because they don’t know what’s going to come about when they all come back.” The family may opt for the online option available to families, Zelinski said.

“We’re not looking forward to that, if that’s the route that we have to go,” she said.

Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter said the ultimate goal is to bring students back full-time. “It’s a matter of timing,” he said in a phone call before the Sept. 25 meeting.

Differing opinions

The district surveyed students, parents and teachers this month as the administration prepared to make a recommendation to the board. Of the 600 students who responded, about 55% favored staying in the blended model. Of 3,000 parents, about 55% favored the return to full-time in-person instruction. About 70% of teachers preferred the blended approach.

If every student returns, the district would not be able to follow the standard 6 feet of social distancing in every classroom. Penn Manor Education Association President Mary Kay Fair said that’s why many teachers feel uneasy about returning full-time.

“While the teachers look forward to the day when a full return of all students is possible, the overwhelming majority of them feel that the Blended Learning schedule is providing them and the students with the health safeguards necessary at this time,” Fair said in an email.

For Penn Manor school board President Carlton Rintz, the return to in-person instruction can’t come soon enough, especially at the elementary level. Rintz and three other board members voted down the phased-in approach because they favor a more immediate return.

“I’m just so fearful that, you know, we’re going to hit flu season … and that is going to scare us,” he said. “And are we going to shut down, and did we just lose those days of in-person instruction?”

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These reopening decisions have weighed heavy on board members and administrators, Rintz said, adding, “We are in a lose-lose situation.”

Rintz said he’s received hate mail related to decisions made during the pandemic, which he called a “divisive, emotional and passionate issue.” His wife, he said, has even expressed genuine fear for their safety.

Jaime Phalan, a postal carrier from Millersville, said she’s excited for her kids to be back in school full-time. Her kids get frustrated and don’t learn well online, she said. Because she and her husband work full-time, they’ve had to pay someone to “basically be me for a day” when her kids are home, she said.

“I pay my school taxes, and I pay a sitter to teach my kids school work,” said Phalan, 40.

Manheim Township

At Manheim Township School District, meanwhile, students in all grades are back to full-time in-person instruction after students in grades seven through 12 followed a blended schedule similar to Penn Manor’s. The school board voted on the plan, which already included the transition to full-time, in August. It did not revisit it with a vote this month, when the shift took place.

“Because families have options, we didn’t see a need to stray from that plan,” board President Nikki Rivera said.

Rivera, who teaches Spanish at Warwick High School, said she has been teaching fully in-person several weeks now, and it’s gone smoothly.

“It takes a little getting used to for everyone, but there are so many ways we can stay safe … and people are doing that,” she said.

Manheim Township teachers, however, were hesitant to come back full-time.

Manheim Township Education Association President Dan Reynolds said more students bunched together at the middle and high school levels could pose problems with COVID-19 infections and mandatory quarantines.

“From a non-instructional viewpoint, there is also concern about the likelihood of COVID being transmitted in school because of the increased number of students, and thus the increased number of person-to-person interactions,” Reynolds said in an email.

Other districts

Other schools that incorporated a blended schedule in August similar to Penn Manor and Manheim Township include Cocalico, Columbia Borough, Lampeter-Strasburg, Manheim Central and Solanco. Officials at most of those districts said they’re sticking with their plans, at least for now. Manheim Central’s superintendent did not respond to a request for comment.

School District of Lancaster and Octorara Area School District are the only two Lancaster County school districts that started the school year fully online.

Lancaster launched in-person instruction for students who are most vulnerable, such as those with disabilities, last week. The board is expected to discuss a plan to phase in students by grade as early as mid-October, district spokesman Adam Aurand said. Students who return for in-person instruction would most likely follow a blended learning schedule.

Aurand said the board will evaluate data every few weeks to see if it’s responsible to bring back more students.

Octorara Area

Octorara Area, which straddles the border between Lancaster and Chester counties, has a resource no other county school district has: a county department of health.

Superintendent Michele Orner said the district has been following guidance from the Chester County Health Department for months. The district was planning to open under a blended learning model for grades seven through 12, but it shifted fully online after the department issued last-minute reopening guidance in mid-August.

The district was encouraged to reevaluate after Labor Day and shift to in-person after Oct. 9. So the district administration is recommending shifting to full-time, in-person instruction for students in kindergarten through sixth grade and blended learning for students in grades seven through 12.

In order to make social distancing work at the elementary school, Orner said, the district is looking to hire three additional third-grade teachers and three additional fourth-grade teachers.

“I miss our kids,” she said, “and I am so looking forward to having our kids back.”