Mt. Lebanon, PA., residents have formed their camps

The community in which I live has formed camps.

As you might guess, the argument involves whether our K-12 school buildings should open at the end of this month, which would allow for face-to-face or hybrid instruction, and whether school teams ought to be allowed to play.

So that you know where I stand, which means multiple people are sure to stop reading at the end of this paragraph, all K-12 buildings around the country ought to be closed and there ought to be no competitive sports this fall.

I’m a soft liberal (or worse) in the minds of some people.

I’m a practical person in the minds of other people.

Doesn’t matter what you call me.

Let’s start with sports.

If my memory is accurate, four of our high school’s teams have had at least one player contract coronavirus since summer workouts started. In each case, the athletic director announced the affected team’s workouts would be halted for roughly two weeks. That time lag will provide assurance that no other players on the team are infected with the virus.

Now imagine we’re in September or October, and those players also are in school buildings, which are sealed tightly and with air conditioning running, as they sit in and move from classroom to classroom. Let’s not forget crowded hallways; no social distancing there. A whole lot more than one player or one team now is at increased risk of a potential quarantine.

I’ve heard all the arguments — “teenagers aren’t going to die from coronavirus” and “the athletes could get coronavirus from anywhere” are the most consistent ones — and those arguments fall flat. Our community, like communities in all 50 states, is still grappling with a pandemic. It’s irrelevant who’s to blame for the position the country is in at the moment; we’re here, and we have to deal with reality as it is.

And the reality is while young athletes might indeed not suffer from the worst of the virus, they will help spread it, simply because their athletic events violate social distancing. That’s true at every practice and at every game. The people they give coronavirus to will include older generations, all of whom are more susceptible to coronavirus’ worst effects.

Let’s summarize sports this way: They do far more good than they do bad, but they are NOT an essential part of the high school experience. (Remember, I was a sports journalist before I became a professor, so please don’t you dare suggest I hate sports.) There’s nothing in any education mandate that states participation on a sports team is required for graduation.

Sports are out, folks. And that’s true even if you accept my offer of you footing the full bill to cover all sports costs this fall. Shockingly, no one has accepted the deal.

End of story.

Now let’s talk about the school buildings. Our district’s leadership has waited as long as it possibly could before choosing how to begin the school year. (Side note: A cyber academy will be part of whatever happens this school year; many parents, this one included, have signed up our children already.)

A couple of nights ago, the district’s superintendent made a recommendation that all education be taught by remote delivery for at least the first 9 weeks of the school year.

Remember, the important word: RECOMMENDATION. He didn’t order it like some bully. He didn’t say it would last for the entirety of the school year. The school board will vote tomorrow night and make a final decision.

Needless to say, the superintendent is either an idiot or sensible, depending upon what you think about open buildings.

The buildings ought to be closed because hundreds of students and dozens of teachers and staff will be breathing the same recycled air for roughly seven hours. (That’s the equivalent of a flight from New York to London each day. Would you make that trip right now? Would you want your loved ones to make it?) I applaud the district for the excellent health-and-safety plan it has put in place for the school year, but the central part of that plan — and this is true of thousands of other district plans as well — is dependent upon children and teenagers keeping a mask on for hours on end while staying six feet apart from their friends and classmates.

Get real.

As you might guess, generally speaking, the “let the kids play” crowd is also part of the “open the buildings” crowd.

There was a scheduled early evening rally tonight demanding the school board reject the superintendent’s recommendation. Some of them — I repeat, SOME (not all) — have forgotten decorum.

One parent took note of that and then took to social media to write the following:

I don’t ordinarily get harsh on social media anymore, but the response of some bulldozer parents to the Mt Lebanon School District’s proposal to opt for remote learning for the first 9 weeks of school is appalling. We are in a pandemic and extraordinary times and I can’t fathom the blatant disrespect of other people. I fully support the superintendent, school board and teachers. These decisions are agonizing, so pull your shit together Mt Lebanon and act like grown-ass adults. Seriously pathetic. Full disclosure, any lame-ass comments arguing anything I’ve said here will be deleted. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t up for debate.

Exactly. This isn’t up for debate.

Let me offer a scenario that further illustrates my point. If you know someone who is recovering from alcoholism, then you know you limit the opportunities where the temptation to drink will be present. He or she knows that one slip up — just one drink — can restart the downward and dangerous spiral of alcoholism.

Because you love that person, you’d do all you could to protect him or her from getting their hands on a drink.

Returning to school buildings, because you love your children, you’re also going to do all you can to protect them, their teachers, their coaches and anyone they know from increasing the opportunities of contracting and spreading a virus that has killed more than 165,000 Americans.

Closed school buildings.

End of story.

Finally, the superintendent’s recommendation letter is long, but it is a logical and sensible argument. The board ought to support it.

Here it is:

In my 32 years as an educator, I can think of no decision that has weighed more heavily on me, and my team, as this one. To say these past six months have been challenging for all of us would be a gross understatement. 

The question of how to safely reopen schools has kept me awake many nights, an experience I’m sure I share with you as you consider how your family will return to school, how you will return to work, and how the world will return to a new normal. 

It is imperative that we determine the path forward quickly and have the opportunity to fully prepare.

As many of you know, in early April the School District embarked on a path to return to in-person schooling. We established the region’s first recovery team and enlisted the help of hundreds of people including teachers, parents, students, administrators, health care professionals and more. 

Every person I know believes the right place for children during normal times is in our buildings, in our classrooms, with our teachers. This is where we are best positioned to expertly address all of their academic, social, emotional, and physical needs through our carefully crafted programs. 

In addition, we recognized that we needed to provide a safe option for students and families who would not be able to return to school for the foreseeable future because of their personal, medical, or specific circumstances.

These were our early goals, and given the COVID environment at the time, my team and I were optimistic that we could follow all of the PDE, CDC, PaDOH, and ACHD guidelines to safely bring students and staff back into our schools, as well as develop a cyber learning academy.

However, in just the past few weeks, we have seen the COVID environment change very quickly.  Just this afternoon, the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education finally provided guiding metrics for schools to use when making decisions related to instructional models.  

According to these guidelines, we should be considering either a hybrid or fully remote option. 

Over the past several weeks, we have had more than 150 of our teachers and staff indicate that they may not be able to safely return to an in-person environment. These requests are made based on documented health issues and eligibility under the various leave allowances. 

In addition, the Mt Lebanon Education Association sent our School Board notification of their support for a full remote start to the school year, which was based on their concerns for the safety of their members and community. 

Based on the current COVID situation in our region, the guidance we have received from the Governor, PDE, PADOH, and ACHD, the observations of behaviors and adherence to proper personal safety and hygiene practices, and the many other factors mentioned above, I am recommending that the school district begin the school year with fully remote instruction for all students for the first nine weeks.

Our community has not hesitated in making their perspectives and opinions known. And while I understand and respect the varied opinions in our community, I truly believe that I have the duty to recommend what I believe is the best pathway forward for the safety of our students, their families, faculty and staff. 

What I can assure families is that the fully Remote teaching and learning will be far better than most of the instruction that occurred in the emergency shutdown this spring.  

In our fully remote learning strategy, your child’s teachers will lead their instruction throughout the day. 

I can assure you that our teachers have committed to provide a high quality learning experience similar to what you have experienced in our schools. 

We have obtained the tools, resources, and training to provide a much more robust learning environment for our students.

As a result, and while admittedly not quite as effective as being in the classroom, we believe that this is the best and safest possible way—at least for the first 9 weeks—to provide the quality education to our students which our community expects and deserves. 

This will also allow us to maintain continuity of instruction, without interruption, regardless of the potential impact of COVID.  We have seen the disruption in other districts in the country who opened the schools only to have to close their buildings due to large numbers of infections. 

For our students with the greatest individual educational needs, we are working toward ensuring access to in-person IEP programming. We are carefully considering how to accomplish this while protecting both their health and the health of those who will be working with them.

This recommendation does not come lightly, and I understand the significant challenges many of you will face because of it. I know that this decision relieves some families and frustrates others. However, I believe that the challenges and risks of returning in-person are too great at this time. 

We will continue to work towards reopening in a hybrid or full in-person model when and if conditions allow. 

I know that every recommendation I make, and particularly this one,  impacts the lives of over 5500 students. Beyond the students, I also have a duty to protect the health of our entire school community –  which includes 700+ employees and over 33,000 residents. This is also the community where I live, where I raised my family, and a community that I deeply care about and value. 

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