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Districts debate challenges that lie both inside & outside the classroom when considering reopening

Cyber learning poses a challenge for many districts, but so does in person instruction

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, cyberlearning poses a challenge for many districts. But, so does the idea of bringing students physically back to the classroom. 

Still, every district in the state must decide a personalized plan for its students this fall that will then be submitted to the PA Department of Education. 

West Shore School District is debating an approach that will offer students and parents a phased reopening that will begin with cyberlearning and end with students slowly entering the buildings for instruction.

Read West Shore School District's phased reopening proposal here.

School leaders admit it wasn't the school's original plan. 

"Personally I was really thinking we were moving towards a full reopening," said Dr. Todd Stoltz, superintendent. Back when many counties were first going green, a survey was sent out by the school to discuss the possibility of reopening buildings. Nearly 3,000 families answered. But, since then, the state has released new guidelines for districts and has issued a universal mask mandate. Pennsylvania has also updated its recommended quarantine list for travelers who have gone out of state to certain locations.

RELATED: Should kids go back to class? As districts debate a return, PSEA is calling on Congress for more funding

Now, based on those new guidelines, Stoltz said district leaders have asked themselves "is there something else we should be thinking of outside a full reopening?"

West Shore's phased reopening proposal would begin with 'Phase 1' that would provide distance learning for all students from August 25-September 18. The school would provide devices for students through either an iPad or Chromebook. It is also working to make sure all students have access to the internet or a mifi device. The district however notes, cyberlearning poses other challenges school leaders must tackle including access to food, connectivity to teachers, and help for students who live in households where both parents work full-time.

Educators must form lesson plans for online platforms while also preparing for Phase 2 of the plan, which would bring students back to the classroom. West Shore School District will hold a meeting with its teachers next week to discuss changes and improvements based on feedback from the survey parents submitted.

Under the phased reopening proposal, on September 10 WSSD will decide if it will remain focused on cyberlearning or transition to Phase 2 that would bring some students back to the classroom on September 21. Phase 2 would eventually be followed by a total reopening in accordance with state and federal guidelines.

In-person instruction, however, also poses its own challenges that include maintaining social distancing onboard buses, classrooms, hallways, and lockers. 

"Probably one of our greatest concerns is managing and dealing with congregate settings," said Stoltz. 

Stoltz added, one of the largest challenges lies in the school cafeteria. State guidelines cap public gatherings and suggest a six-foot distance between students. It also calls for students to face one direction, Stoltz said. Those guidelines would require districts to make changes at lunchtime, where places like Red Land High School could normally seat up to 350 students at one time inside the cafeteria. 

Pennsylvania is allowing every district to decide its reopening plan to tailor proposals to the needs and capabilities of every district. When FOX43 asked Stoltz if he supports the state's decision to allow districts to make their own personalized choices, he said "in as much as I think that having the flexibility to make local decisions is important, I do think that there is some need for consistency across the board in really helping schools define a target."

An updated, detailed plan of the phased reopening and health and safety proposal is expected to go before the school board at its next meeting on August 13.

West Shore School District is home to around 7700 students and 950 staff members.