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Midstate school districts must weigh space, staffing and transportation to make in-person instruction work in a pandemic

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South Middleton School District

Pictured is the entrance to South Middleton School District's campus in Boiling Springs.

The CDC said Friday that in-person schooling can resume safely with masks, social distancing and other strategies, and that vaccination of teachers is important but not a prerequisite for reopening.The agency released its road map for getting students back to classrooms amid a pandemic that has killed nearly 480,000 Americans. Officials said there's strong evidence now that schools can reopen, especially at lower grade levels. But its guidance is just that: It can't force schools to reopen. CDC officials were careful to say they're not calling for mandatory school reopenings.

Space, staffing and transportation are three key factors that can make or break the ability of a school district to return students to the classroom during the pandemic.

For much of the current school year, Cumberland Valley and South Middleton school districts have been able to offer their elementary school students classroom instruction five days a week.

The two districts are a study in contrasts. South Middleton is small with two elementary schools contained within a single municipality. Cumberland Valley is large with eight elementary schools in multiple townships.

What they had in common were advantages in capacity that other districts lack. In both cases, lessons learned from the closure of schools last spring became the driving force behind summer planning that made in-person instruction five days a week possible.

Like every district in Pennsylvania, Cumberland Valley and South Middleton were forced to pivot last March from classroom to online instruction through what remained of last school year.

“We know from our own experience that our younger kids do not do well online,” said David Christopher, superintendent of Cumberland Valley School District. “Our younger kids really struggled. The hybrid situation was going to be tough for them.”

To prepare to reopen in the fall, districts across Pennsylvania developed instructional models that ranged from fully online to fully in-person with hybrid options combining elements of both. The model in use at any one time depends on the infection pattern of COVID-19.

At first, South Middleton looked to start the year in a hybrid model where its elementary students would attend classroom instruction two days a week and stay home for remote instruction three days a week.

But that changed partway through the summer after the district surveyed families and child care providers within South Middleton Township. Worries about academic performance were compounded by parental concerns of being able to arrange for adequate care three days a week, Superintendent Matthew Strine said. Providers were concerned about demand, he said.

Once there was a commitment, both districts had to factor in capacity issues surrounding space and staffing to make in-person instruction five days a week work.

“It was a complete overhaul of what we do on a daily basis,” Strine said. “There was a lot of consideration of everything.”

As a rule, newer school buildings tend to have larger classrooms. Square footage is an important consideration in determining how to provide adequate social distancing between students and teachers.

South Middleton was fortunate. In recent years, Iron Forge Elementary School was completely rebuilt and expanded. W.G. Rice Elementary School had extra classrooms left over from the transfer of the third grade to Iron Forge following the renovation project.

Timely building projects also helped Cumberland Valley. “Most of our buildings are newer,” Christopher said. “We have fairly good sized classrooms. We needed to get below 20 students per classroom. I think we are averaging 16 across all the elementary buildings, with program highs of 19 and lows of 12.”

Even with the larger classrooms, Cumberland Valley is not meeting the optimal social distance of six feet between individuals. Instead, the district has been meeting a distance of three to six feet fairly consistently, Christopher said. “We follow a cohort model where students are together all daylong. They stay together at recess and in the lunch area. We try to contain anything that could happen. It’s working incredibly well.”

In essence, each is a bubble onto itself where the entire classroom goes into quarantine and remote instruction if a student or the teacher is exposed to COVID-19, Christopher said.

South Middleton measured six feet out from the center of each desk to calculate the square footage per student, Strine said. “We divided the area in the room by the number of bubbles that we will need. It turned out that we can fit a lot of kids in there.” Using the data, administrators set a limit of 17 students per Rice classroom and 19 students per Iron Forge classroom.

South Middleton has contingency plans to use music or art rooms if a classroom grows beyond the limit, Strine said. “We have not yet reached that point, but we are getting close in some grade levels.”

Cumberland Valley and South Middleton facilitated social distancing in classrooms by removing all nonessential furniture and placing it in storage. Cumberland Valley may use COVID relief funding to pay for the rentals.

The districts reassigned reading and math specialists to serve as classroom teachers during this school year. As a result, certain programs had to be discontinued to free up personnel certified in elementary education. One program was a STEM Exploration course offered once a cycle to elementary school students.

For many specialists, it has been years since they last taught a classroom of students, Christopher said. To help them with lessons, the district offered extra duty contracts last summer to a group of teachers to develop pre-recorded content in all the major subject areas. There are now enough lessons to cover the entire school year.

Cumberland Valley reassigned 35 specialists to classroom duty, enabling the district to start the school year with a larger number of classroom sections per grade level at each elementary school. This made it easier to reduce class sizes to the target level.

What also helped Cumberland Valley was the development of its virtual cyber academy. Instead of going with an outside vendor, the district developed its own four-day-a-week virtual program using Cumberland Valley teachers and curriculum, Christopher said. As a result, families that could go cyber were more confident to sign on, he said.

This reduced the number of elementary school students who would attend in-person classes from 4,000 to 2,800, Christopher said. Fewer students meant fewer classrooms were needed.

South Middleton changed the focus of its elementary curriculum so that more attention could be placed on English language arts and math, Strine said. “We felt there was a learning loss during the spring shutdown the second half of last year. From the onset, we had to go into remote learning. I don’t think any school district was really prepared to do that. We have been monitoring the data. It showed our efforts have been good but we still have some work to do.”

To offer in-person instruction five days a week, Cumberland Valley had to change its transportation system to account for social distancing and more students riding the bus, Christopher said. “Our elementary day is shorter by about an hour so that we can double up the number of bus runs. We were able to get lower densities on school buses.”

In effect, Cumberland Valley divided its elementary schools into two zones with Middlesex, Monroe and Silver Spring in the west and Sporting Hill, Hampden, Shaull and Winding Creek in the east. West zone bus routes run on an earlier schedule because the students are further apart. East zone bus routes run on the later schedule because students are more concentrated.

Online Learning Curve: A look at how Cumberland County schools adapt to virtual edcuation

Sentinel Reporter Joe Cress takes a look at how area school districts have managed the move to an online learning format as they deal with the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Building a focused approach for teachers
  • Making the call to go all online
  • The emotional wear and tear of COVID
  • Surges in virtual academy enrollment
  • The challenge of livestream lessons
  • The future in online lessons
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Cumberland Valley School District created its own virtual academy over the summer to meet the anticipated demand of families seeking an alternative to in-person instruction. Other local districts see an enrollment surge in their already established academies. 

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Logistical issues make it difficult for some school districts to implement livestream lessons as a virtual learning option. 

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Technology and structures put into place for COVID will lay the groundwork for future development of virtual learning programs in local school districts. 

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“This is a really challenging year for everybody,” said Michael Gogoj, director of curriculum and instruction for the Carlisle Area School District. “Our students are struggling with this new educational world. Our teachers are working really hard to learn and manage new systems. Our families are working hard to step in as their child’s teacher and to take on entirely new roles in the educational process."

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“We understand the short-term closure has many impacts on families and our teaching staff,” Spielbauer said. “Right now, it’s community spread. It’s not considered school spread but, if we can’t get it under control in our community, it will become school spread and we will have a larger challenge on our hands.”

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Lessons learned this spring from the COVID-19 shutdown changed the way local school districts conducted the professional development of teachers in the lead-up to schools reopening. 

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Distance learning is going to last longer than expected. Here are some ideas to make sure your child's online learning goes smoothly.

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