Our school community has made it through the most unusual start to a school year I've ever seen, as we completed our first week of virtual instruction. Many parents and guardians have shared with both administrators and with the Lower Merion Board of School Directors some highlights and some difficulties of what they've experienced since last Tuesday. Among the highlights: the diligent and creative work of our teachers to engage students, help them through technical issues and create a sense of classroom community in the virtual setting. Among the difficulties: how hard extended screen time is for some students, especially our youngest learners, and the challenges facing parents, guardians and caregivers as they try support students, often while working themselves.
We know that virtual learning is not ideal. That is why I wanted to share another update with you on our District's ongoing work toward a safe and equitable return to in-person instruction for all students. To that end, some of our special education students who require in-person instruction in order to access their education due to significant needs related to their disabilities, returned to our buildings today.
As mentioned in my prior update, we are consulting with Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's PolicyLab to help guide our reopening plans. Their guidance is available here. We feel that our mitigation strategies (physical distancing, mask-wearing, hygiene and symptom surveillance/sick policies) will enable us to phase in safe in-school instruction, so long as there is not a rapid resurgence in our area.
Therefore, we are proposing a phased-in approach with proper precautions that we hope will mitigate the health risks posed by gathering students and staff. But it is also important to note that 1) we cannot eliminate the risk of exposure, 2) we must remain flexible and align our plans to changes – such as surges in the numbers – that can occur at any time, and 3) we cannot fit all of our students and staff in our buildings at the same time while maintaining physical distance.
Keeping these factors in mind, I am proposing the timeline below to return students to the buildings. This timeline will remain subject to change at any time, depending on conditions in our buildings and in our community:
Week of September 29 (no school on 9/28):
All Kindergarten students
- Assigned AM or PM classes with additional support staff to facilitate de-densification of classrooms where necessary
- Elementary principals will follow up with building-specific details
Week of October 5:
Next group of special education students
Grades 1-3 in their assigned hybrid cohorts*
Week of October 12:
Grades 4-5 in their assigned hybrid cohorts*
Week of October 19:
Grades 6-12 in their assigned hybrid cohorts*
*We are re-evaluating our previously proposed hybrid scenario, in which one cohort would attend school on Mondays/Tuesday and the other would attend school on Thursdays/Fridays, with Wednesdays being used for deep cleaning between cohorts. While this option remains "on the table," we are once again studying an AM/PM option as well. In this type of hybrid, one cohort would attend school in the mornings, and one would attend school in the afternoon. Students would not eat lunch in school. The AM/PM option would ensure all students can engage in at least some in-person each weekday.
Also, in alignment with the guidance, everyone in our buildings and on our buses will be required to wear face masks. Masks will only be removed during lunches (If lunch is part of the school day, it will be eaten at student desks in classrooms or in other locations determined by building where social distancing can be maintained). Additional precautions in place include:
- Increased ventilation and filtration (MERV-13 filters) in the existing heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems
- Emphasis on and time for hand-washing multiple times each day
- Hand sanitizer stations
- Signage throughout all buildings reinforcing safe practices
- Staggered transition times and directional hallway usage
- Revised pickup and drop off locations and procedures
- No visitors in school buildings
Finally, parents/guardians will be expected to complete a screening at home each morning, prior to sending students to school. If the answer is "yes" to any of the following, students must be kept home:
1. Do you have any of these symptoms that are not attributable to another condition?
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Repeated shaking with chills
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- New loss of taste or smell
2. Do you have a temperature at or above 100.4 F?
3. Have you been in close, direct contact with; or a caretaker for an individual with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the past week?
I long for the days when we can return to "normal." In the meantime, I hope we will continue to work together as a community to keep each other safe and support our students.