Damaris Rau

Damaris Rau

Between us, we have nearly a century of experience as educators. The 2019-2020 academic year presented challenges to our profession unlike any we have ever seen.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to transform our educational model, virtually overnight. There have been obstacles along the way, from rewriting curricula, to inequitable internet and computer access, to accommodations for exceptional learners. And there have been disappointments — lost sports seasons, missed proms and “virtual” commencements.

In spite of these obstacles, we write today with great admiration for our teachers and staff in the School District of Lancaster, our neighboring school districts and those across Pennsylvania. They have persevered in the face of this adversity, and our students, schools and communities are better for it.

To be sure, few things have more impact in a child’s life than being in the presence of caring, effective teachers. That is why we all eagerly anticipate being together in our classrooms with our students again, when health and public authorities are confident it is safe to do so. 

But we must face our current reality. Over these past two months, we have been inspired by countless anecdotes from our district, such as:

— The teacher who drove more than 30 miles one way — twice — to provide hands-on guidance (with mask and gloves) to a student who is just developing English skills and could not access online instruction.

— The teacher who has delivered more than 80 bags of food to families who she knew would be unable to make it to our regular meal-distribution sites.

— The elementary teacher who has responded to hundreds of texts and phone calls from students and families, but who also still handwrites letters to every student so they receive something tangible from her, not just texts.

— The J.P. McCaskey High School Advanced Placement teacher who schedules personal Zoom meetings at times convenient to her students — such as one at 9 p.m. — so her student could join after work.

— The first grade teacher who hosts class Zoom meetings four times a week that include math, a story reading and time to talk about life in this pandemic-and then FaceTimes with students one-on-one another three or four times per week.

— The music teacher who hosts percussion lessons on Zoom featuring Matthew Woodson, director of community percussion at Music For Everyone.

— The elementary school that throws virtual birthday parties on the weekends using Zoom, so students are able to celebrate online with their classmates.

We could go on. These are not exceptions; they are emblematic of our staff’s enormous commitment to serving students and families in our community.

Our students have been adjusting, as well. Online learning is asynchronous, meaning students do not need to be present for set periods of time. They can log in as needed and complete assignments at their own pace during the week. Online learning takes discipline and, in younger grades, parental support. Still, 85% of our students are engaging weekly, and more than half of our students are active on our online platforms every day.

As this school year ends, we are growing our programs at a rapid pace. We aim to offer virtual summer enrichment programming to all families who want it. We are planning for social distancing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation protocols and creative hybrid-school models, all in the hopes that students return in the fall. 

We are adding K-5 classes to our local full-time cyber academy and dramatically increasing capacity to ensure families who do not feel safe sending students to school have a local cyber option with a personal touch.

All of this is why it is discouraging to hear some voices in Harrisburg question the state of education during this crisis. Recently, state House Speaker Mike Turzai sent a letter to all Pennsylvania superintendents asking, among other things, if there is “value added from the educational establishment,” and even if students are “having interactions with teachers.”

We respectfully ask Turzai to consider these stories — and, no doubt, many stories from the districts he represents— in questioning Pennsylvania’s schools.

Quoted in a recent Harvard Business Review article, Australian filmmaker Benjamin Gilmour said, “Most people see obstacles and they interpret it as a sign to stop … The only way to become the hero, is to go through the obstacles!”

Our teachers, support staff, students, parents and others are going through the obstacles. When the history of this pandemic is written, we are sure they will be among the heroes.

This op-ed was co-authored by Damaris Rau, the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster; Edith Gallagher, president of the School District of Lancaster school board; and Jason Molloy, a teacher at Price Elementary School and president of the Lancaster Education Association.


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