The WSSD board held a special meeting on August 2nd to pass a revised health and safety plan for the new school year as well as associated measures required by the state. The video of the meeting held in the auditorium is available on Youtube as usual. The meeting included brief presentations on the plan, a lengthy public comments section and then voting on the plan. At 3.5 hours, it was one of the longer board meetings.
The superintendent spoke at the beginning to introduce the focus topics for the evening. He noted there was a glitch with messenger and not everyone got last week’s communication, but that is being fixed.
There were two focus topics. One was the proposed revised health and safety plan. The other was an emergency instructional time template, which is being required by the state.
Focus Topic 1: Health and Safety Plan
The superintendent opened by saying that the district was following guidance from organizations like the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, PA Department of Health CHOP and until recently the Chester County Health Department. This statement seemed inconsistent because, as noted by later speakers, the plan he proposed is not consistent with the recommendations of most of those groups. He noted that the shifting recommendations makes it confusing to keep up with changing guidance. He also noted the district was looking at averaged counts over 2 week periods.
He covered the mitigation methods proposed relatively briefly. The plan called for those under 12s to be required to wear masks, while those 12 and over could do as they wanted. There would be physical distancing of 3′, which would still allow full in-person instruction with a normal school day. Other mitigation measures adopted last year – hand washing, cleaning, ventilation changes, contact tracing, self-screening, the Covid dashboard on the website and vaccinations through partners would continue.
Focus Topic 2: Emergency Instruction Time Template
The second focus topic covered the emergency instruction time template required by the state. This template requires the district to form plans for what to do if school closures are mandated again by the state. It requires the district to document how the instructional time mandates will be met in this event (and according to later discussion, for students in quarantine). The district’s emergency plan calls for 5 day a week synchronous class on zoom supported by Google classroom and Seasaw. Elementary students would have 60 minutes of language arts and math, 30 minutes of social studies or science, two 30 minute intervention blocks and two 25 minute specials. Middle school students would have 44 minute long classes with breaks between and the high school 80 minute blocks. Students would be issued devices (chromebooks for grades 3 and up, ipads for K-2). For younger students, these devices will normally be kept in the classroom and will be sent home in case of a mandated closure.
The board had a few questions to clarify. Kelly Wachtman asked specifically about 6th grade, because that is the class that mixes unvaccinated 11 year olds with potentially vaccinated older children in the middle school. The district said that 6th grade was mostly isolated from other grades in the middle school with each grade having its own section of the building and but did share a few common spaces like world languages, stairwells, the lunchroom and afterschool activities.
The board asked about getting more local data than the state data provided. This was a recurring complaint. With the withdrawal of Chester County’s health department, localized data is no longer available. This seems odd, because if you go to the state’s dashboard, while you can’t find Covid data by school district, you can find it by zip code. As ~80% of the district lies in 19086 or 19081, that data seems like it could be used as a proxy. Or you could include 19063 as well and mix in Media’s data for a larger picture. That said, I’m not sure using such hyper-localized data is as useful as the board seems to think as people regularly cross district lines in the course of a day and the virus easily spreads between districts.
Matt Sullivan asked why the health and safety plan was by age instead of grade level. Matt asked why they didn’t have data on the ages of those in 6th grade and how many would be under-12. David Grande asked if the district had vaccination numbers for students. Although the district knows who participated in vaccine clinics at the school, they do not have numbers for students vaccinated elsewhere. The numbers they have indicate that they know that at least 51% of students 12+ are vaccinated. Kelly Wachtman asked if districts could require vaccination and the solicitor said it was an unknown, some districts are considering it and likely to be challenged in court.
Public comments got off to a difficult start when the first commenter would not abide by the 3 minute time limit. The board stopped proceedings and went into a recess for at least 10 minutes. Comments afterwards were pretty evenly balanced and almost entirely focused on the masking issue (though some spilled into vaccination misinformation). Most of the comments were from Swarthmore and Nether Providence residents with most comments asking for universal masking coming from Swarthmore residents and most opposed from Nether Providence.
The comments largely retread familiar ground with some claiming their personal freedom should allow them to recklessly endanger others while others supported the calls from medical institutions to implement universal indoor masking. A couple of comments highlighted that accommodations for those with special needs were lacking in the health and safety plan (and were lacking in the last school year). A number of the comments in favor of masking came from the parents of 6th graders.
There were three items up for a vote on the agenda. The first was the emergency declaration. There was little discussion explaining what this was and it passed 8-0 without much comment.
The second was the proposed revised health and safety plan. Wendy Voet opened by proposing an amendment that would set a threshold of 50 cases/100k at which point masking would become universal indoors. Matt Sullivan made an amendment to clean up the language. The original amendment called for universal masking to be reversed once the numbers fall under that threshold over a 2 week period. The justification for this was to reduce the number that would need to be quarantined in the event of widespread community spread of Covid. There was a lengthy discussion, with some board members seeming confused at times. The amendment passed 6-1 with Chapin Cimino abstaining and Jennifer Lentz opposing it.
Kelly Wachtman proposed a second amendment requiring masking by grade level rather than age, for K-6 rather than under 12s. Lentz was opposed to it because she thinks it will discourage vaccination. David Grande spoke in favor saying that it makes sense since vaccinated and unvaccinated will be sharing classrooms in 6th grade. This passed 6-2 with Chapin Cimino and Jennifer Lentz opposing it. Afterwards Matt Sullivan made another amendment to clean up language issues. Jennifer Lentz noted the board is receiving lots of email. The amended health and safety plan passed 8-0.
The emergency instruction time template required by the state was the last piece, and passed 8-0 after a short discussion.
The meeting was closed by a second comment section where a hearing impaired student that spoke earlier said he’d have to leave the district because of the plan. The superintendent asked for the student to please meet with him to discuss his situation before he left.