Carlisle Area School District administrators are recommending that the start of the school year be delayed two weeks until Sept. 8.
“The past several weeks have not provided the clarity and direction which we would have needed to make a firm and committed decision for school to start on Aug. 24,” Superintendent Christina Spielbauer said in a letter this week to district families.
The school board will convene a special virtual meeting Thursday to address the proposed change. Monthly committee meetings will follow the special meeting.
“Paramount to the board is the safety of both students and staff,” Board President Paula Bussard said Friday. The recommendation reflects significant issues surrounding the pandemic that the school district has to take into account when planning for reopening, she said.
Any decision to reopen schools has to be made in consultation with health experts along with the professional educators of neighboring school districts, Bussard said. “It should not be a political decision.”
The original plan was for Carlisle schools to reopen Aug. 24 using the Tier 2 hybrid model where students are divided into Groups A and B for in-person instruction on alternating days. The hope was to have the Group A and B student assignments out to families by the end of July. Instead, Spielbauer sent out the letter announcing the proposed delay in the start of the school year.
“Next week, we will provide our revised calendar and you will be notified whether your student has been assigned an A or B schedule,” she said. “As we monitor the COVID-19 situation in the coming days and weeks, we are striving to open to a Tier 2 hybrid model. … However we must urge our families and staff to be prepared for the possibility for a Tier 1 fully online reopening on Sept. 8.
“This decision to delay has been painstaking as it has been our sincere intention to provide our families and staff with a clear pathway forward,” Spielbauer said. “As with other school districts in our area, the health and safety of our students is our absolute priority. We simply cannot in good conscience open our doors to students as originally scheduled.”
Spielbauer cited a number of issues that prompted the recommendation to delay the start.
A recent survey of district families, along with a high volume of phone calls and emails, make it apparent that a large proportion of families are highly anxious about their children returning to school, Spielbauer said. “That’s understandable. We share those concerns.”
“While we would take every possible measure to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff, we recognize our limitations,” Spielbauer said.
For one thing, the district cannot guarantee that every student will comply with safety precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This includes social distancing on every bus, six-foot of separation in every classroom or appropriate conduct, such as the wearing of a mask when social distancing is not possible.
“Given increases in cases within the community, this remains a significant factor for us as we make a decision on reopening,” Spielbauer said. “The district has consulted with local medical experts who indicate that the turn-around time for COVID testing is upwards of two weeks. This delays our ability to conduct contact tracing, and inhibits our ability to make timely and informed decisions such as quarantining and the closing of classrooms and/or buildings.”
As neighboring states and counties experience an increase in COVID cases, there are a growing number of school districts that have decided to begin the school year with online instruction, Spielbauer said. “Given these trends and patterns, we are highly concerned that either the governor will close schools to in-person learning or the district will be forced to do so at the local level.
“We believe that it will be inevitable that individual classrooms, wings or schools close down for several days at a time due to COVID outbreaks among students and staff,” Spielbauer said. “Already this summer sports teams in our region have begun practices only to be shut down due to COVID cases. School buildings represent the most significant gatherings of people in our community when COVID cases arise. Shifting back and forth between in-person and online instruction places a significant burden on students, staff and families.”
The district must also be responsive to the health conditions and concerns of staff members, Spielbauer said. “We have now determined that a significant number of Carlisle faculty and staff would be unable to return to the classrooms. On top of the concern for our staff members, the need to fill vacant classrooms yields an incredible operations challenge.”
There was a statewide shortage of teachers in Pennsylvania long before the COVID-19 outbreak. As a result, the pool of teachers and staff is already lacking, Spielbauer said. “In addition, absences created by inevitable sick days or the quarantining of staff would burden an already strained substitute pool. We need to be able to appropriately staff our classrooms and serve our students.”
Email Joseph Cress at email@example.com.