Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pottstown Schools Chief Says Open Online Only

Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez speaks during a live presentation Monday night of the results of a parent survey, which found a majority uncomfortable with the idea of returning to school in person.
Following the release of the results of a parent survey, Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez announced last night that he will recommend that the district open schools virtually only, with no in-person classes, for at least the first semester.

The decision is not final and will only be so after a vote of the school board at a special meeting scheduled for Thursday night.

Rodriguez says more than 1,000 parents took the online survey that was only announced Wednesday. "I think that's the biggest response since we asked about the dress code," he said.

He ran through the results, which varied depending on who was answering the question: parents of elementary, middle or high school -- or all or some of the above.

The survey looked at various hybrid options outlined by Rodriguez in a similar live video session with 
parents last week. They include week on and a week off, two days a week, earlier class times and a wide variety of possibilities.

In the end, few if any broke the 50 percent mark for being acceptable to all parents.

"Nobody loved anything," he said.

What was clear, Rodriguez said, is that "70 percent aren't terribly comfortable coming back full-time."

That was the feeling of the district's COVID Task Force as well, Rodriguez said. Comprised of staff, parents, teachers and a student school board member, their overriding opinion is "this is a safety issue more than anything,"

"We've looked at this, read thousands of pages and worked on this for hours and hours and it's clear we are concerned about many issues, such as the lack of testing, with kits taking 14 to 16 days to get results," Rodriguez said. 

"When we looked at all different factors, it's near impossible to run a school, and we don't want people to get sick," he said.

This was also the conclusion reached by the Federation of Pottstown Teachers, said Rodriguez. 

The recommendation he will make to the school board Thursday is that the district go fully online for at least the first semester.

Making the recommendation a little easier to proffer, said Rodriguez, is the fact that the district now has a line on a Chromebook computer for every single Pottstown student. "We have thousands of Chromebooks, he said, although the kindergarten computers are not yet in hand. 

"They are ordered and I hope they arrive soon," he said. 

Unlike the hodge-podge curriculum thrown together on the fly when schools closed in March, the program offered online will be "synchronus," meaning the teachers will be live and interacting with students on the other end of the line. 

"Kids say they don't like structure, but they love it," Rodriguez said. "We want to give them plenty of structure. We're re-inventing school."

Career and technical instruction is being explored "and we're looking for what type of certifications we can give students through an on-line experience."

Rodriguez, who began his career as a special education teacher, said the district is also making plans to accommodate special education students. Those with the most severe hardships may well be taught in-person in largely empty school buildings.

There is still a lot of work to do, Rodriguez said. "Teachers need training. Parents need training. Kids need training," he said.

He explained that the district has also offered for years, a hybrid virtual academy originally designed to compete with cyber charter schools, and which will also be available for parents and students who prefer it.

As coronavirus cases begin to spike in parts of the country where re-openings occurred earlier, Rodriquez said the district has seen 400 inquiries into that program.

As for extra-curricular activities, Rodriguez did not have a firm answer, but he left little room for hope.

"If we can't maintain a six-foot distance in the classroom, we probably can't do it on the field," he said.

He said he understands the concerns of working parents. 

"Our system is built on the fact that kids go to school, but we had to make a choice," he said, adding that the district will be as flexible as possible to accommodate families with obstacles.

Rodriguez acknowledged "we know this isn't going to work for everyone."

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