Mastering the response to COVID-19

LM+is+taking+many+precautions+to+ensure+the+safety+of+its+students.+At+lunch%2C+students+must+sit+at+desks+spaced+six+feet+apart.+%7C+Photo+courtesy+of+Sophie+Shin+%2722

LM is taking many precautions to ensure the safety of its students. At lunch, students must sit at desks spaced six feet apart. | Photo courtesy of Sophie Shin ’22

Since the district’s evacuation of students on March 12, few students, if any, had walked inside their beloved school. Halls once decked with kids, teachers, and staff sat quietly, anticipating the return of some form of normalcy. Now, with hybrid learning starting off, the hustle and bustle of LM is starting to return to its halls.

Over the course of quarantine, district officials devised various plans involving a full return, a hybrid return (in which half the school is in the building two days a week, and the other half is in the school the other two days), and an entirely online approach. However, remaining in school depends on a myriad of factors such as school board decisions, parent testimonials, CDC guidelines, and county case numbers. LMSD hosted training programs for teachers and staff to help accommodate the unique challenges brought on by the pandemic.

Amy Buckman, LMSD’s Director of School and Community Relations, expressed that the district has taken measures to prepare staff for this new form of instruction. “Over the summer, we were able to streamline technology and communications and to provide additional training in best practices for remote instruction. But our goal throughout has been a safe and equitable return to in-person instruction for students and staff,” she said. Buckman also emphasized that the current in-person return poses its own challenges, as the district seeks to adhere to health guidelines, “We cannot maintain safe physical distancing if we have all students in our buildings at the same time, so the hybrid models were developed to align with the different abilities of elementary and secondary students to engage with remote instruction, to provide needed transportation and to mitigate health risks to the extent possible.” While many members of the community wished for this return to in-person instruction, navigating the new aspects of education during a pandemic means students and teachers must compromise on a modified learning approach.

After receiving the hybrid-learning schedule on Friday, October 2, some students remained confused about the logistics of the new plan. According to Sophie Shin ’22, “I understand the need to please parents, but the hybrid plan is so disorganized that it seems to cause more problems than it solves for everyone involved.” To ensure that student and faculty safety are accounted for, LMSD has instituted new safety measures to school, including distanced desks in the cafeteria, mandatory mask wearing, and the hybrid in-person or remote schedule. While many students are excited about the return to school, others, such as Maggie Monahan ’21, question whether these safety precautions will truly be effective, “It seems unrealistic to believe that everyone will be able to stay six feet apart in the hallways, and I don’t really trust everyone at school to be vigilant about social distancing and wearing masks.”

School administrators contrasted their plans for a safe return to the guidelines issued by Montgomery County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Montgomery County was one of the Commonwealth’s hardest-hit counties at the onset of the coronavirus in March and remains stringent in their safety regulations. In an extensive guide to reopening schools, issued on July 18, officials recommended quarantining individuals who return to Pennsylvania from high risk states, self-monitoring COVID-19 symptoms for students and teachers, and frequently washing or sanitizing hands with sanitizers containing at least 60% alcohol. School administrators also took Pennsylvania state-wide guidelines into consideration. In Governor Tom Wolf’s three phase reopening plan, schools may only resume in-person instruction in the Green or Yellow phases, meaning that case numbers are no higher than 50 new cases per 100,000 people. If case numbers are within that range, school districts must publicly issue their in-person instruction plan on the district’s website and identify a “pandemic coordinator” to oversee all proposals. The state also mandates that districts institute staggered scheduling to reduce the number of students in the school, distance desks and tables six feet apart, and administer daily health screenings for everyone entering the building. Faced with the public pressure to send students back to school, along with the intense guidelines and restrictions to do so, the return to in-person instruction will be daunting for school administrators.

For now, students’ and teachers’ fate lies in the hands of the school board. As case numbers rise throughout Montgomery County, the logistics concerning our safe return to school have become more intricate. As Buckman remarks, “The challenges ahead will require everyone’s cooperation with the Health and Safety protocols and will require us to remain flexible, as we expect there will be surges in incidence and positivity rates.” The destiny of the 2020-21 school year sits in the balance of COVID-19 cases and the safety of students.