BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Elementary school students in the Bethlehem Area School District will return to in-person classes four days a week beginning April 12. The district's Board of Directors approved the new hybrid model for K-5 students during its Monday night meeting.
The move expands in-person learning from two to four days a week for elementary students only. Students in the district's middle and high schools will continue to attend in-person classes two days a week.
The change also includes authorizing the administration to make adjustments to staffing and class sizes, as applicable, to maintain 3-6 feet of social distancing in classrooms.
BASD's average class size is 20 students. The district will use that number as a target class size, following updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now states that children wearing masks can safely sit 3 feet apart in classrooms.
Monday night's decision finalized discussions that directors started at the committee level March 15.
Superintendent Joseph Roy said their recommendation "is backed with scientific evidence shared previously with the board," and is supported by the Bethlehem Health Bureau, St. Luke's University Health Network's epidemiologist and vice president of community health, infectious disease doctors and BASD's medical director.
"All of these directors have been in regular contact with BASD through the entire school year," Roy noted in the district's official document surrounding the vote. "They are very familiar with our district's specific mitigation, contact tracing and case counts. We would not move forward with this recommendation without the support of our partner experts."
BASD maintains the decision is difficult. On the one hand, the district must consider the health and safety of students and staff. On the other, the education and social needs of students cannot be dismissed. The balance the district struck last August resulted in the hybrid model that has been utilized since the start of the 2020-21 school year, along with an eClassroom option.
However, the situation has changed since then, Roy argued. "We are now at a critical juncture," he wrote. "We must reexamine the balance we struck in August. Students have not attended school regularly for an entire year." As a result, Roy said "the academic and mental health challenges caused by the pandemic are undeniable."
Another factor in the administration's support of the change was "growing evidence that students under 10 years old are less likely to contract the virus and less likely to transmit the virus," Roy said.
The move should please an overwhelming number of parents who wanted his type of format according to a district survey.
On Monday night, Roy shared COVID numbers with the board. "The key for tonight's vote is that the elementary cases have been declining," he said, referring to numbers within the district's 16 elementary schools. "But let's not let up."
In other news, directors approved the retirements of five administrators:
- Michael LaPorta, principal, Freedom High School;
- Jill Moran, principal, James Buchanan Elementary School;
- Joseph Rahs Jr., principal, Northeast Middle School;
- Deborah Roeder, principal, Miller Heights Elementary School;
- Carole Schachter, supervisor, English learner services.
"All have been with the district for many years and made many sacrifices," Roy said.