At last night's Education Committee and Supplemental Regular Meeting of the Lower Merion Board of School Directors, I asked Megan Shafer, Assistant to the Superintendent for Administration, to share an update on our ongoing work toward reopening schools for additional in-person instruction. For those who were unable to join the webinar or watch the livestream, a recorded version is available on the District website. (A closed-caption version will be available within five days). Ms. Shafer's presentation begins about 45 minutes into the meeting, after the presentation on the integrated mathematics curriculum. Her slide deck is available in the Board Docs section of the District website. Below, is a summary of where we are in this work.
The Goal Remains the Same
As we have stated repeatedly since the Governor ordered the initial school closure in March 2020, our goal is a safe and equitable return to in-person instruction for students and staff. I strongly believe that having our students in our buildings benefits them not only educationally, but also emotionally. While many factors have changed – including the metrics that various governmental and health bodies deem safe – LMSD's goal has remained constant. I know that many parents/guardians and staff are anxious to have students back in school full time. I also know that many are concerned that changes to our current Health and Safety Plan could increase the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for students, staff and their families. We continue to consult with doctors from CHOP's PolicyLab and with the Montgomery County Office of Public Health to formulate next steps toward safely reaching our goal.
The Positives (and caveats)
- Our ACE-IT Testing program is working well and we are scaling it up. As of now, we are testing about 1000 staff and selected students (including athletes and identified special education) each week. We have caught about a half-dozen asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic positive individuals through this testing and they have been isolated, mitigating the risk of their unknowingly spreading the virus within our schools and community. We plan to expand this program to additional students in higher-risk activities, such as chorus or musical ensembles.
- Many of our staff who fall into Phase 1A have been able to begin the vaccination process.
- However, most of our staff do not fall into Phase 1A and with shortages in vaccine availability, we have no indication of when Phase 1B, which includes educators, will begin.
- To date, 132 LMSD staff members have been infected. We are thankful that most have recovered, but not all of them have. While we are not making reopening dependent on vaccinations, we must acknowledge that even with our Health and Safety protocols, our staff are taking risks on our buses and in our schools. We cannot take the health of our staff members and their loved ones lightly.
- Incidence and positivity rates in Lower Merion are among the lowest in Montgomery County
- However, Montgomery County still has a "substantial" rate of transmission – a level at which the state continues to recommend fully remote instruction.
- In a meeting with Dr. David Rubin of PolicyLab this morning, he said he expects a "sweet spot" in late March or April, when incidence rates, positivity rates and trends, and warmer weather create a scenario where repopulating K-5 classrooms would make the most sense. He warned that going back too soon would likely result in plans having to be walked back due to transmission. And he added that the new variants of the virus could impact any timing and plans.
- Enrollment in LMSD remains high and our schools are crowded. In looking at enrollment numbers, even taking out the students in LMVA, LMSD@Home and the current Flex program, if all elementary students currently in hybrid were to return, we have many classes that could still have 20 or more students.
- Some nearby districts have about 50% of students opting for virtual instruction. That is not the case in LMSD (see pages 11 and 12).
- There is not enough space to maintain six-foot distancing if all hybrid students return to in-person
- Dr. Rubin noted that while some recent publications say that maintaining three feet of distance between students is acceptable, that is not the current CDC recommendation. He added that the effectiveness of masks at three feet is debatable.
- The closer students are, the more complicated contact-tracing becomes if there is a positive, which could result in more quarantines and necessitate more virtual instruction.
- Parents/Guardians who selected the hybrid model did so with the understanding that six-foot distancing (and the other Health and Safety protocols) would be maintained. They may not want to send their children back to school if that cannot happen
- While fewer students in school would mean more room, it also raises the question of how those students whose families are not comfortable with a change in protocols will be educated.
- LMSD@Home is at capacity and there is shortage of available teachers and substitutes to add sections in any existing program
- The K-8 Flex program is not ideal, as teachers must simultaneously teach to two audiences (in the room and at home), using different methods for each group, resulting in less personal attention to individual students.
- Pulling some teachers to continue to teach within the hybrid model while others teach in-person will result in numerous students having new teachers for the remainder of the year.
- We will send out an initial survey to stakeholders to see how many are likely to send students back to in-person instruction, within the constraints of our space and staffing challenges. Future surveys will follow as plans become more concrete.
- Based on the results of this initial survey, we will flesh out solutions to those challenges, along with others that have been identified by our Parent/Guardian Focus Group, our Health and Safety Committee and building principals. These include how to handle lunch, dismissal and supervision of students who are spread out throughout buildings.
- We continue to source and work on logistics for items such as tents, useable outside spaces, plexiglass shields/dividers, and additional and replacement furniture.
- We will continue to expand our ACE-IT assurance testing and work on vaccination options for our staff.
Thank you to the many community members who have shared their knowledge, expertise and feedback with our Administration and Board. As always, you are welcome to email the Board at CommunityComments@lmsd.org and to attend (Zoom) Board meetings, where public comment is taken. As we work together to reach our goal, please continue to be vigilant about wearing masks, washing your hands and maintaining distance from those outside your households.