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MUHLENBERG TWP., Pa. – It's been almost a year since any Muhlenberg School District students set foot in school buildings, but that's about to change.

The school board voted Wednesday night to approve a phased reopening health and safety plan that will see the first students return to in-person learning on March 22.

Muhlenberg and Reading are the only two districts in Berks County that have remained completely virtual. Next week, the Reading School Board is expected to discuss a similar plan for reopening.

Muhlenberg's plan comes after months of parents pleading with the administration to reopen schools.

After parents felt they were not being heard at the Feb. 10 board meeting, a few of them organized a peaceful protest outside the administration building on Feb. 19.

Superintendent Joseph E. Macharola consistently maintained that remaining virtual was in the best interest for the safety and health of the students.

On Wednesday, Macharola told the board the decision has nothing to do with public pressure placed on the administration.

"I am recommending this to the board this evening through no influence from picketing, sour social media or distasteful letters," he said. "If the data was not clear, I would not make this recommendation."

Macharola's recommendation is to start with a hybrid learning model, bringing back kindergarteners and first graders, along with special education and English language learning support students, the week of March 22. The rest of students in the district would return the following week.

Half the students will attend in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the other half on site Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be virtual for all students.

Special education and English language learning support students will attend in-person classes Monday through Thursday.

"I stand by our numbers; we have been very consistent," Macharola said. "On Feb. 10, there was no way I could have recommended bringing our students back. Our children are our prized treasures."

Macharola said the district is following guidelines form the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

"I know our faculty is ready and poised," he added. "There are fears, certainly. I am recommending with great confidence but caution, and with great spirit, with temperance, to bring our children back on March 22."

Board member Mark Nelson questioned the timing and asked if it wouldn't make more sense to wait until after spring break, which is scheduled March 29 through April 5.

Macharola said he considered that but concluded the time to bring the students back is right now.

"Actually, if there is anything that does occur, that spring break will help to temper things as well," Macharola said, referring to the possibility of COVID cases once students return to school.

"The time is right on March 22," he added. "Science and the data and common sense tells us it's time to bring our students back to school."

Macharola reported that recent parent surveys indicate that approximately 30% of students will opt not to return, which amounts to 1,300 children.

"I completely understand and respect that," he added. "Those children will be getting livestream instruction, which will be the same instruction taking place in the classrooms."

Remembering board member Randall R. Madara

In other business, the board approved a resolution to honor the memory of board member Randall R. Madara, who died March 2. Madara served on the board from 2017 until his death.

The board also appointed K. Scott Long, a former board member, to fill the vacancy created by the death of Madara.

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