The School District of Lancaster will reintroduce virtual learning for elementary school students about a month after it welcomed children back for in-person instruction amid another surge of COVID-19 cases.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will now learn remotely from Nov. 30 to Jan. 25, 2021.

The school board unanimously approved the measure Tuesday night as a last-minute addition to the board meeting agenda after dozens of teachers rallied outside McCaskey East High School in support of a return to online learning at the elementary level.

While the vote was unanimous, many board members expressed frustration over the way some have conducted themselves during the pandemic.

“The adults are the ones screwing up,” board member Dave Parry said, adding that it’s “profoundly unfair” to be asking students to sacrifice their educational development due to the irresponsible behavior from some adults.

Kareena Rios broke into tears while expressing her anger toward those who aren’t taking the virus seriously.

“I am so mad,” she said. “I am so mad. It’s so unfair for our families and our children that school is what’s taking the back seat.”

Rios called out those who in the spring rallied, many without masks, to reopen nonessential businesses in the state, as well as those who don’t take COVID-19 precautions seriously.

“Some people have acted like this pandemic has never happened,” she said.

Square one

Now, the school district is essentially back at square one, as students districtwide will be learning remotely after Thanksgiving, with the exception of student groups with special needs.

The district started the school year with remote learning districtwide in accordance with a board-approved metric that stated the district could transition students to in-person instruction when the county recorded new COVID-19 cases in the range of 36 to 60 weekly cases per 100,000 residents.

As cases started to surge in October, the board gave Rau the authority to abandon the metric and bring elementary students back to school. Older students may return to in-person instruction in January 2021.

Last week, the county had 204 cases per 100,000 residents. That puts the county in what the state considers “substantial” community transmission, in which the Education and Health departments recommend only remote learning.

With COVID-19 setting new records for new cases nearly every day, teachers have become increasingly frustrated with the district’s decision to bring back students.

So before Tuesday night’s board meeting, about 50 educators lined the walkway leading to McCaskey East High School, where the meeting was held, to pressure the administration and school board to shift elementary students back online.

Participants in the rally held up signs that read, “Dead teachers can’t teach,” and, “Follow the Science and keep out Students Safe.” Others drove in circles in front of the school and honked their horns.

When district Superintendent Damaris Rau exited her vehicle and walked toward the school’s entrance, teachers lifted their signs and shouted, “Keep us safe!”

“I’m just hoping that they’ll be able to understand why we’re doing this,” Lancaster Education Association President Jason Molloy said at the rally.

Case against hybrid

Teachers at the rally took issue with the hybrid plan Rau has in place. Under the current hybrid model, for example, students actually interact less with their teachers than they did when they learned remotely.

"Currently we have only two days of instruction compared to the four days when we had virtual, so, in reality, I see less of my students than I did before," Christina Woomer, a third-grade teacher at Burrowes Elementary School, said at the rally.

For Janet Rawleigh, a music teacher at Burrowes, remote learning worked better than the hybrid model. When students were remote, she observed better student engagement and participation, and students could actually sing — something that's not allowed in-person.

"I feel like teachers and parents can work together to make this good and yet keep people healthy and safe," she said.

During the meeting, Rau urged her critics to redirect their frustration.

"I am not the villain here," she said. “COVID is the villain."

Case for hybrid

Rau made her case to stick with the blended instructional model despite rising COVID-19 numbers across the county and within the district. Earlier in the meeting, the district revealed it has 295 active quarantines and 22 active positive cases. It’s already closed one building — Fulton Elementary School — due to a spike in cases.

Rau, however, said the blended model is better for students, especially students of color, whose social and emotional needs aren’t met with remote learning. School shifting back to remote won’t make an impact on community spread, she said, as people “continue to go to Target and Walmart,” eat at restaurants and so on.

“If SDoL closed in-person learning, only SDoL children will be negatively impacted,” she said.

While many of the voices she heard on Tuesday were in favor of virtual instruction, Rau said she’s gotten letters from teachers, parents and even students who prefer in-person learning. She read three of the letters at the meeting.

Many of the board members thanked Rau for sharing, but, ultimately, they weren’t swayed.

Thanksgiving and other holidays coming up represent significant chances for spreader events, board members said. Board President Edith Gallagher said it’s important the district and its families to take precautions and “flatten the curve.”

“From Thanksgiving through the New Year … there’s just going to be so many opportunities to spread the virus,” she said.

After the vote, Rau said she respected the board’s decision.

“Unlike some politicians, I am a mature person and I respect your decision,” she said. “You had the right to make this decision, and we will make it work.”

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