EMMAUS, Pa. – East Penn School District will continue to provide hybrid and remote instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, while monitoring when five-day classes can resume in person.
"Our district is considering the feasibility of a return to a full five-day instructional model," Superintendent Kristen Campbell said Monday at a virtual meeting of the East Penn school board.
Many factors go into that decision, she said, and the State of Pennsylvania plays a big role. No timetable was set for going back to school full time.
A return to regular classes would require a drop in the rate of coronavirus spread in Lehigh County, while the district would have to meet state guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing.
Campbell and other administrators explained how maintaining a six-foot distance limits how many students can fit into a room, and how adding portable classrooms would require time and money.
Some district parents have been demanding a return to full-time education, organizing online in a bid for teachers and students to return to classes physically.
"I can't emphasize enough that our intention in sharing this level of detail this evening is truly not to give excuses as much as it is to give you insight to the obstacles" to returning to normal, Campbell told the board.
District Solicitor Marc Fisher said if the district were to return to in-person instruction and not meet Pennsylvania Department of Education safety requirements, the schools might have to go remote.
"PDE investigates complaints about schools," he said. "They appear willing to impose sanctions on school districts."
Fisher said a district deemed out of compliance with social distancing and mask rules could be forced to end all in-person instruction, and sports and other activities could be suspended.
"The last thing you want to do as a school district is make that decision, move completely forward to five-day instruction, find yourselves in violation" and wind up as a remote-only district, Fisher said.
Campbell said that if the district decided it were ready to go back to full-time classes, parents would be given two weeks' notice. Board member Paul Champagne suggested the administration be ready to move faster.
Edward McClain, a district resident, said teenagers "are at little to no risk for COVID" and said the EPSD should "stop kowtowing to all of this COVID jargon."
In other business, EPSD Business Administrator Robert Saul presented projected expenses for the 2021-22 school year that total $163.8 million, up from $157.2 million in the current year. That estimate will be reviewed and possibly reduced, he said.
Compensation, as presented Monday, would rise 3.1% to $66.6 million, and the cost of healthcare and payments to charter schools would also go up. Payments of principal and interest on debt are projected to drop to $8 million from $9.1 million, Saul said.
Saul will present the revenue side of next year's budget at the board's March 8 meeting.
Campbell said the district will try to bring back students who have left the district for charter and cyber charter schools.
"We are planning sessions with families that made the decision to leave East Penn schools this year," she said. When students choose charter schools over the public district, East Penn has to send money to the charters, while its own costs do not drop correspondingly.
"This is probably one of the largest unknown variables in our budget," Saul said of the charter payments.
Parents took children out of the public schools during the pandemic, and how many will return is a mystery. The preliminary numbers set the 2021-22 payment to charter schools at $7 million, up 29% from the amount budgeted for this school year.
"There must be something awry" that is driving students to charter schools, board member Allan Byrd said. He asked the administration to investigate why students leave.
The meeting was broadcast on YouTube and started about 20 minutes late because the board met in a private session first to discuss personnel and other confidential matters. Monday's meeting ended about three hours and 15 minutes after the scheduled starting time.