The Bedford Area School District is switching to a “hybrid” school reopening that will have students alternate between in-school and online education on a week-to-week basis due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The district school board at its meeting Monday night voted to update its reopening plan based on the recommendation of the district’s administration.
“This one’s tough,” Superintendent Dr. Allen Sell said about the decision. “There will be no winner in this situation. Some people are going to be happy, some people are going to be unhappy. But we’ve got to push through for the kids.”
The school board at its meeting in July approved a tentative full reopening plan that allowed for all students to return to the classrooms at the start of the school year. But district administrators said new information received over the past month, including liability concerns, simulated case scenarios, and guidance from the state had led them to reconsider the original plan.
Sell said students will be divided into two groups based on the last name of the youngest student in the family. The two groups will alternate between in-school and online education on a week-to-week basis, reducing the number of students in the school buildings at a given time by half.
Part of the concern against a full reopening developed as administrators conducted simulated contact-tracing drills in recent weeks. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Paul Ruhlman said the “tabletop” preparedness drills showed the potential spread of the virus through the school.
“What we found out is if we have one positive test, it affects 25 to 30 kids,” he said.
Ruhlman said schools in other states that have reopened are experiencing the issues predicted by the drills.
“It’s all playing out right now,” he said.
District leaders said the risk of the virus isn’t limited to the students, who fall in an age group relatively safe from the most severe complications from COVID-19.
“It includes our staff, the student population, parents and the community,” Ruhlman said.
Sell said the district also must consider new guidelines issued by the state Department of Health on Monday. Those recommendations outlined instruction models based on an area’s COVID-19 transmission rate. Bedford County, like most areas, is considered to be in a “moderate” zone, which includes a recommendation of partly remote or fully remote instruction model.
Sell said the district’s insurance carriers have required that the district follow other state guidelines, including the need to wear a face mask when unable to socially distance.
By reducing the number of students in the building at a given time, Sell said students in most classrooms will not need to wear a mask during class. Masks will still be required when students are unable to socially distance, including in the hallways and on the bus.
Board president Tom Bullington said his initial reaction was to figure out a way for families who did not want to attend in-school to have class online, and for other families to have the option to attend in-school daily.
“The answer is, it just doesn’t work out that way,” Bullington said, adding he agreed with the administration’s hybrid recommendation.
Each of the other school board members also supported the proposal at the meeting.
“It’s best for the students, the staff and the community,” said William Ross.
Dr. Sandy Mehalko said she would even support a full online model, if needed.
“I think we will provide excellent education virtually,” she said.
Peder Flaaen said he supported the hybrid model, but said he had concerns about the quality of education students will receive online.
“I don’t think we have much of a choice,” he said. “But I am deeply concerned with the quality of education level received in the virtual model.”
Sell said the online education will be more rigorous than it was when school buildings closed in the spring.
“It has to be a more accountable academic system,” he said.
Sell said the district will continue to evaluate the ability to reopen fully.