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'This is frightening': Lancaster elementary school students return for in-person instruction despite COVID-19 resurgence

Some of the School District of Lancaster’s youngest students returned to in-person instruction last week, marking the first time these students stepped inside a physical classroom since coronavirus concerns closed schools in March.

The momentous return, however, is clouded by criticism from some community members, particularly teachers, as COVID-19 cases continue to increase at an alarming rate here and across the country.

“This is frightening in light of the numbers we are now seeing,” Jason Molloy, president of the Lancaster Education Association and a wellness instructor at Price Elementary School, said in an email.

Countywide, weekly cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents reaches into the 70s. In the three largest zip codes within the School District of Lancaster — 17601, 17602 and 17603 — the weekly infection rate per 100,000 residents is 66, 91 and 104, respectively, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

In September, the board approved the metric, which states the district can transition students to school when the county records new coronavirus cases in the range of 36 to 60 weekly cases per 100,000 residents.

Yet at a meeting two weeks ago, the school board gave Superintendent Damaris Rau the authority to abandon that health metric. As a result, the district sent students in prekindergarten, kindergarten, first and third grades back to school last week. Students in second, fourth and fifth grades return this week.

Students will follow a hybrid model, learning in-person two days a week — either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday — and online the rest of the week.

School board member Dave Parry said he wanted to move away from the previous metric to give more leeway to the superintendent so elementary school students could return to school. Emerging research shows that the risk of young children attracting and spreading COVID-19 is low, Parry said; meanwhile, delaying the return to in-person instruction for students, particularly in early grades, could be costly.

He mentioned research out of Brown University that showed schools that reopened in-person instruction did not experience high rates of new COVID-19 cases.

“The evidence so far suggests that we can likely open schools - especially K-5 - pretty safely in most parts of the country,” Ashish Jha, the dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told Chalkbeat Philadelphia this week.

Parry said resuming in-person instruction for elementary school students was vital. The district hasn’t decided when to bring back older students, but Parry said he’d be more cautious with them.

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Kristen Stief, center, waits with her students Jordan, Layla, Sophia and Kamaly as School District of Lancaster elementary school students return to school for in-person instruction at Carter & MacRae on Friday, October 30, 2020.

Three school board members voted against allowing the district to step away from its original health metric. They were Ramon Escudero, Salina Almanzar and Robin Goodson.

Escudero, reached by phone Wednesday, said he didn’t want to move forward with in-person classes without soliciting more community feedback. He said he would be more comfortable if the board stuck with the benchmark, which health professionals helped develop.

Almanzar said in an email that she had nothing further to add than what she said at last week’s meeting, during which she said flexing the metric was unfair to teachers who were counting on it to assess their work conditions. Goodson did not respond to a request for comment.

Dozens of teachers last week submitted online comments urging the school board to reconsider. Some pointed out that real-time, synchronous learning actually decreases under the in-person hybrid model compared to fully remote learning. 

“As a teacher, I had placed my trust in you and the health metric that you chose,” Melissa Miller, a Wharton Elementary School teacher, said. “This ‘cherry picking’ of data is unfair and places teachers, staff and students at risk.”

In an email to LNP | LancasterOnline, Molloy said in-person instruction is the best way for students to learn, but lives are potentially at stake.

“Despite our desire to get back to the classroom, our number one priority remains the safety, health and welfare of not only students and staff - but of the entire Lancaster City community,” he said. “Teaching does not take place in a bubble.”

Several parents also weighed in last week on the board’s decision to move ahead with in-person instruction. Some expressed concern for their children’s health, but others emphasized the importance of getting their kids back to school.

One of those parents was Heather Smith. In a follow-up interview with LNP | LancasterOnline, the mother of three said she has struggled the most with online instruction for her youngest son, who is in fourth grade. On asynchronous days, when students are left to learn on their own, she said simple assignments seemingly take forever for her son to complete as he gets distracted and overwhelmed.

“We have all shed tears on asynchronous days,” Smith, 33, a stay-at-home mother from Lancaster Township, said.

Although she’s been supportive of a hybrid model since “day one,” she thinks four half-days could work better to avoid the increase in asynchronous learning time.

Superintendent Rau confirmed in an email that the new schedule would include more asynchronous learning not directly led by a teacher.

“The hybrid model involves two days of in-person instruction and three asynchronous days per week,” she said. “Teachers are being very creative and putting in extra hours to meet with students outside of schedules synchronous times. We are also working on creative ways to provide students additional synchronous instruction options.”

Lancaster school board President Edith Gallagher said she hopes the community doesn’t view the board’s decision as “flip-flopping.”

“It’s really a terrible decision, you know?” she said. “We’ve just been faced with the most difficult decision, maybe of my life. There are just no good solutions here. It’s either taking a chance with people’s health and their lives or taking a chance with our children and their futures.”

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