Manheim Township school board

Manheim Township school board meets Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. 

Manheim Township schools will move forward with a plan that uses a combination of in-person and remote learning through January after the school board rejected a proposal to shift students online from Nov. 30 to Jan. 19.

School administrators, who didn’t endorse a districtwide shift to remote learning, presented their alternate plan at a school board meeting Thursday night following a lengthy discussion about how the district should handle instruction following the Thanksgiving break.

Instead of approving its own measure, the school board handed authority back over to the administration to decide how to move forward.

It all happened during a nearly six-hour meeting Thursday night as residents, parents, teachers and students weighed in and school board members argued whether in-person instruction was worth it with COVID-19 surging across Lancaster County and within the district.

The county shattered another record for daily new COVID-19 cases Thursday with 368.

As of Thursday night, Manheim Township had reported 71 total cases at its schools. That includes 34 active cases, 18 of which are at the high school. There are also three active probable cases at the district.

As a result, all of the district’s schools were closed this week, and students learned online. The district’s middle and high schools have been closed since Nov. 11. The intermediate school closed Nov. 13.

With the possibility of students and families gathering over Thanksgiving, many were concerned with the chances of another spike occurring at schools once students returned. So a late addition was made to Thursday night’s agenda to potentially shift all students online until Jan. 19, one day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“We fought valiantly, but the virus finally had its way with us,” board member JoAnn Hentz, who proposed the measure, said.

The board rejected the proposal by a 7-2 vote, however. Hentz and Curtis Holgate were the only two board members to support it.

“People are going to bring the virus in school,” Holgate said. “There’s just no way around it.”

Holgate said the district’s current approach of closing schools and quarantining on a case-by-case basis has caused significant instability, which he said could be more harmful than the negative effects of remote instruction.

Most board members, however, expressed concern with overriding the administration by taking COVID-19 protocols into their own hands.

“I don’t want to pass this, because I don’t want to tie their hands,” board member Joyce Stephens said.

Board President Nikki Rivera said she didn’t want make “a sweeping decision” when the administration has been monitoring cases and quarantines essentially 24/7.

Similarly, Stephen Grosh said such a decision would have stripped the flexibility that the district’s plan developed over the summer affords.

The board’s discussion came after dozens of community members – residents, parents, teachers and students – weighed in on the measure.

Those in favor urged the board to consider the health and safety of teachers, staff and students. Some pointed out the loss of Alexandra Chitwood, a Manheim Township Middle School counselor who died of COVID-19 in October.

“Are the selfish wants of the student body and the parents enough to counteract the loss of a life?” Manheim Township High School senior Alexis Matthew said.

Brian Booker, a social studies teacher at the middle school, shared his own family’s experience with the virus. His grandmother died from COVID-19 on Oct. 17, he said. After a small, outdoor memorial service, his entire family contracted the virus. He had a fever and chills, difficulty breathing and lost his sense of taste and smell.

That was the worst of it.

“As our district knows, this is not always the case,” Booker said.

Many in the community expressed a concern over the impact remote learning has on some students, especially those with special needs or dealing with abuse at home, as well as working parents.

Several commenters quoted from a statement released Thursday by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf along with governors from New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts that read, in part, “In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families.”

Parent Brooke Zoltowski compared moving to online learning districtwide because of COVID-19 to getting a paper cut and “walking out of the doctor’s office with a full cast.” She said in-person instruction is clearly best for students, especially those with special needs. 

After the public comment period and the board’s discussion, district Superintendent Robin Felty revealed a new proposal developed by the administration. At this point, the meeting was almost five hours in.

The administration’s proposal included the following:

• All students would learn under a hybrid model – in-person two days a week, online the other three days – during the week of Nov. 30.

• The following week, kindergarten through fourth grade would move to full-time, in-person instruction, while the rest of the district remained under the hybrid model.

• Grades five and six would shift to full-time, in-person instruction the week of Dec. 14.

• All students are off the week of Dec. 28 for the holidays.

• When students return Jan. 4, all students would return to the hybrid model.

• Kindergarten through fourth grade would move to fully in-person instruction again the following week, followed by fifth and sixth grades the next week and all grades during the last week of January.

On the administration’s proposal, Felty said she’s “hoping that this plan gets us through the next several weeks.” Adding some online instruction, she said, “is not ideal, but at least we could have checkpoints so no student gets lost.”

Felty said the board’s original plan would not be “good for children,” and suggested the board vote on the administration’s proposal rather than the original one.

Hentz was not thrilled. She said she didn’t see why how Felty’s plan would avoid another shutdown and questioned how parents would keep up with which days are remote and in-person. She also expressed frustration with the board’s apparent desire to stay hands-off.

“Of course the administrative team came back with, ‘Here’s a better plan. Let’s go with this,’” she said,

After a head-scratching turn to the discussion, the board voted 7-2 against the administration’s plan, with Hentz and Holgate again in the minority. While board members in the majority expressed support for the plan, they voted against it to allow Felty and her team – not the board – to ultimately decide how to move forward.

The district confirmed Friday that it plans to implement the schedule administrators presented Thursday night.

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