Chester County Health Department Director Dr. Jeanne Casner joined the Zoom meeting to answer questions from board members before they voted.
Casner reported that Chester County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 was 3.62 percent for the week ending Sept. 25, and the incidence rate was 49.8 per 100,000 residence, both measures within the health department’s guidance to allow for hybrid instruction as an option. Casner explained that the health department’s focus is always “population health,” and Chester County’s guidance is drawn from local data.
Votes against the plan for moving into hybrid instruction were cast by WCASD board members Joyce Chester, Brian Gallen, and Dr. Kate Shaw.
“I think October is too soon,” said Chester, who expressed special concern for those in the community who are at greater risk, including persons of color.
Casner verified this heightened risk, explaining that many parents in this part of the community are essential workers with a higher exposure risk, and also that West Chester’s and other communities of color historically have a higher incidence of chronic diseases.
Shaw concurred with Chester, also saying, “It’s too soon.”
“I just can’t bring myself to vote ‘yes.’ I don’t think we’re safe yet.” She added, even though children have a lower risk for COVID-19, they can transmit the virus to teachers, parents, and grandparents. “We’re making a decision for the entire community.”
But two-thirds of the board voted ‘yes,’ on the Revisions to Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan for School Year 2020-21.
Those six members expressed confidence in the careful planning that has gone into the preparation for the hybrid return to classrooms. Most who voted in favor of the plan also noted that daycares and many private schools have been holding in-person classes for weeks, with no reported shutdowns of schools.
Dr. Karen Herrmann said, “Dr. Scanlon and the administrative team have been very thorough.” She added that as a former teacher, she knows that even teachers “will be very willing” to do whatever is asked of them, even working harder to be both in classrooms and online.
“How long do we have to wait,” Herrmann asked. She said she has confidence that people are going to be diligent and follow the measures that are in place.
“We can’t live in fear,” said WCASD Board President Chris McCune. He acknowledged the complexity of the issues, but also called attention to successful in-person instruction taking place in other places and situations. McCune also emphasized that the district is keeping the at-home instruction option for families who don’t want their children in school now.
Casner explained how reporting of school COVID-19 cases will work once students are coming to buildings again, and summarized the procedures for contact tracing. Schools will report positive cases to the health department immediately and the health department will be the one to look into how the person may have contracted the virus, and who might have been exposed.
“In 30 years as an educator I’ve never seen anything like this,” said WCASD Superintendent Dr. Jim Scanlon.
Following the guidance of the Chester County Health Department in late August, WCASD did like other districts in Chester and Delaware counties, and began the year in all-virtual instruction, with the stated intention to review the decision by Oct. 9.
Comments from the public read in the meeting brought questions about logistics of hybrid instruction, such as transportation, families with children at different schools, and scheduling. Some raised concerns about the ongoing risks, questioning whether safety remains a priority for the board, while other parents strongly encouraged the move to get children back in classrooms.
Parents will respond to a survey in the first week of October to let the district know if their family chooses to remain in remote learning.
Scanlon announced he will hold “parent chats” on Thursday evening, with elementary student parents at 6:30 p.m. and secondary student parents at 7:30 p.m. The presentation he made in the meeting may be viewed here.
The return to school will be in a staggered model, meaning not all grades will arrive back on the same day, and the hybrid instruction model means not all students are in school on any given school day.
A timeline of the proposed move into a hybrid instruction plan can be viewed here.