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EMMAUS, Pa. – Elementary students in the East Penn School District will soon head back to full-time, in-person instruction.

Children in kindergarten through second grade will return to school five days per week starting March 29, while third- through fifth-graders will go back April 6. The school board voted unanimously Monday night to amend the district's health and safety plan to allow K-5 students to resume a full schedule of in-person classes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines to support social distancing of 3 feet in the classroom, instead of the previous 6 feet, which provided an opportunity for East Penn to expand its on-site learning.

Middle school students

The CDC's new physical distancing guidelines will also allow middle school students to return to full-time instruction. The exact date for that change, though, is to be determined once enough staff members have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Epidemiologists on East Penn's health and safety task force have indicated that a 70% vaccination rate among staff would be a good level for the safe return of middle school students, said Superintendent Kristen Campbell, adding that they are approaching that milestone.

Elementary school employees were in the first round of COVID-19 vaccines. Four hundred staff members received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last week at the clinic held at Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit #21, Campbell said. She added that a second round of the single-dose vaccine will be administered in the next two weeks. The timing and availability of vaccines will determine when students can return to the middle school.

High school students

While the news was good for elementary and middle school students, administrators reported that hybrid and remote instructional models will remain in place at the high school for the remainder of the school year.

Assistant Superintendent Laura Witman said there are too many structural limitations at Emmaus High School that do not allow for social distancing based on enrollment. She said the district is striving to have full-time, in-person classes in the fall.

Reactions and next steps

Board members embraced the positive changes, but many expressed disappointment that students will not have the opportunity this school year for regular in-person instruction at the high school.

Campbell said a survey will be mailed to parents of the younger students this week, asking them to make a final commitment on a learning model — either full-time, in-person instruction or remote instruction — for their children for the remainder of the school year.

Returning students will be required to wear a face mask with a nose clip to provide a snug fit, per CDC guidelines, said Thomas Mirabella, director of student services. Clips and face masks that meet CDC recommendations will be provided to students who do not have them, he said. Students will still be required to maintain 6 feet of distancing during lunch.

Before the vote, each school board member asked questions and made comments. Board member Naomi Winch commented that it's important for parents to know with clarity what's required versus what's recommended, particularly with wearing masks. Like many of her colleagues on the board, she voiced disappointment with the plans for the high school and the effect it will have on the emotional and social needs of students.

Board President Ken Bacher said he was heartened that the changes to the health and safety plan align with the new CDC guidelines and that there is planning for a full return at the high school level in the fall. He said he was also pleased to learn that most HVAC systems in district buildings will operate at 4 air changes per hour.

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