Dear Pelham Community,
Members of the Reopening Advisory Task Force presented a draft report and recommendations to the Board of Education at its meeting on Wednesday, March 24. The Task Force, composed of medical professionals, parents, administrators, teachers and clinicians has been meeting for the past five weeks to identify and solve key challenges in returning students for in-person instruction on a more regular basis.
In delivering the report to the Board, Kristen Burke, who co-facilitated the Task Force with Dr. Champ, recognized medical professionals Dr. Tracy Breen, Dr. Kusum Matthews, Dr. Jason D’Amore and Dr. Tiffany Hébert and thanked them for lending their expertise to the group. Mrs. Burke also reiterated the purpose of the Task Force, which reads in part, “The role of the Task Force was to generate discussion and come to a consensus, and to submit its findings and recommendations to the District and the Board of Education on how to bring Pelham children back to school in an environment that is safe, and which mirrors, as much as possible, the educational and co-curricular environment that existed for students prior to the advent of COVID-19.”
In conducting its work, the Task Force provided feedback on the District’s plans as they were developed and discussed a number of key areas, including reviewing recent studies to determine if 3-feet distancing is sufficient in the classroom, how to safely handle elementary and MS/HS lunch with increased density, ways to support fully virtual students as well as teachers who have very few virtual learners and various metrics the District can monitor to determine if there is a rise in COVID-19 positivity within the schools. The Task Force also considered various mitigation strategies the District can employ to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The key findings in the report are as follows:
- 3-feet distancing between students in the classroom is sufficient and the difference in measuring 3-feet from desk to desk vs. student mouth to student mouth is negligible.
- Universal mask wearing is critical and must continue. Families are strongly encouraged to make sure their children’s masks fit tightly and don’t fall down, to the extent possible.
- Ideally, desks in the classroom should face in the same direction with as much distancing as possible. However if additional distancing can be achieved by “clustering” desks, that can be done on a classroom by classroom basis.
- Keeping windows open as much as possible and outfitting rooms with exhaust fans and air purifiers will create better ventilation.
- It is essential that students participate in the District’s surveillance testing program and that a broad range of students are tested each week. The goal of testing 5% of the school population each week is adequate and the rapid antigen tests being used by the district are sufficient for surveillance testing purposes.
- The surveillance testing results should be posted to the District website and compared with Westchester County positivity rates to monitor if the virus is spreading in the schools. Teacher/staff vaccination data should also be published to the extent possible.
- With a reduced number of fully virtual students, teachers’ attention is going to be more focused on in-person learners. The District should seek ways to make sure fully virtual students have the resources they need to succeed.
- Early-release Wednesdays should continue in order to provide teachers the necessary planning time to continue to meet the needs of teaching to the in-person and remote students.
The Task Force supports the District’s timeline for opening the elementary schools for Full-Time In-Person instruction beginning April 12. It was noted, however, that space limitations at the middle and high school would likely make it difficult to return all students to FTIP while maintaining 3-feet distancing in the classroom. Dr. Champ reported that the MS and HS principals were working to determine exactly how many families would prefer an in-person instructional model vs. staying fully remote, noting that there were families who did not complete the educational model selection form sent earlier this month. Once the final data is known, the District will review schedules and classroom space to determine how many students can return at one given time and may consider an expanded hybrid model in which more students can access in-person instruction than is currently the case.
Fellow Task Force member Erin Ginsburg also acknowledged a variety of concerns raised about students’ mental health, noting that the effects of the pandemic are substantial and will be long lasting. Specifically, the Task Force recommended that there be an emphasis on community building when students return to their schools on a more regular basis and that efforts be made to ensure fully virtual students feel included in their class. There may be a need for additional clinical support to address issues such as increased anxiety, social skills and other social-emotional concerns.
The full draft report is available on the District website as is a recording of the BOE meeting video. Once plans for the MS/HS are finalized, the Task Force will update the report.
Later this spring, the Task Force will begin meeting again to assess how the reopening plans are working and assist with planning for Fall 2021.
The Pelham Public Schools