MUHLENBERG TWP., Pa. – The Muhlenberg School Board on Wednesday heard from about a dozen parents who are frustrated with the district for not moving to a hybrid learning model from the ongoing all-virtual classes.
Several were angry, as well as emotional, saying their children are depressed and not doing well with virtual learning.
Michael Althouse, a parent and a teacher in another district, said he was disappointed with the district and its lack of progress in implementing a hybrid learning model.
"I just don't understand why our numbers are so high compared to other districts," Althouse said of COVID-19 cases. "I know the [virtual] education is adequate, but it doesn't compare to in-person."
Karen Althouse, Michael's wife, said while her husband was addressing the issue from a teacher's point of view, she was speaking only as parent.
"You had a 46% response rate, where 70% of families want to get our kids into in-person education," Karen Althouse said, referring to a recent survey sent to parents by the district. "I don't understand why we can't make it work. I'm ready to put my house on the market, and my kids are hysterical about having to move away from their friends. I can't do this anymore — we need our kids in school."
Superintendent Joseph E. Macharola said he was saddened to hear parents are disappointed with the district.
"The Muhlenberg district is a very transient school district, and we are a reflection of the urban area that we border," Macharola said. "That's not a negative statement, just the reality."
The Reading School District is the only other Berks County district that has remained fully virtual since the start of the pandemic.
"I want the kids back in school right now," Macharola said, "but we cannot get them back if we do not have adequate staff."
Macharola explained that since the pandemic began, a total of 252 employees have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have had to be in a quarantine situation.
"With a low rate of teaching staff on site, we can't safely social distance," he said. "We will not put 100 kids in an auditorium with one teacher. Our buildings are crammed. As we sit here today, it's not possible to bring our kids back safely. Just keep the faith. We will get there."
The district has about 4,000 students, but only four school buildings.
Carolina Ramos, the parent of two elementary school children and a teacher in the Reading School District, said it's very difficult for her to see her children cry every day because they don't understand why they have to stay home.
"I know firsthand all of the mental problems," Ramos said, referring to the impact of the pandemic. "This isolation is too much. I need my kids to develop social skills and develop like normal kids."
Macharola said he was overwhelmed in spirit with the mental health concerns.
"We hear you, we respect you, and I will tell you that as a parent, I love your position and what you are saying," he responded. "I am really concerned about this generation and what effects this will have on them for the rest of their lives."
Several parents blasted the board because they said they don't see struggles firsthand, as most of the members do not currently have school-aged children.
Board member Garrett Hyneman said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends students return to school but only when it is safe to do so.
"Everyone on this board wants to see our kids back in school," Hyneman said. "I don't want to be in the situation where some of our kids get sick and possibly die because we brought them back before it was safe. We don't want to bring kids back and then try to make sure it's a safe environment."
Heather Rosenberry, the parent of two boys, questioned why the district conducted the survey if it means nothing.
"Why do surveys and give us false hope?" Rosenberry asked. "Seventy percent want kids to go back, but it doesn't matter what we say. You said you are poised and ready to bring kids back several times, but there has been no effort. There has been no attempt. All across the East Coast, schools have found ways to make it work."
Other parents continued to echo the feelings of disappointment and accused the district of not having any plans to bring kids back to the classroom.
Macharola said plans for hybrid learning are posted on the district's website, but that they can't be implemented until the administration can be assured students and teachers will be safe.
"We will get them back in school safely at some point," Macharola said. "I say that, and some of you are upset, but believe it. It will happen, but we will be doing it safely."