Public Wanted, Late at Night Got, Inkling of Pottsgrove’s Return to School

LOWER POTTSGROVE PA – When up to 220 people signed into the Pottsgrove Board of School Directors’ virtual special meeting Tuesday night (July 14, 2020) they asked dozens of questions about, got answers to, and ultimately saw board members approve what was described as a calendar-driven 37-page health and safety plan for athletics and the high school marching band.

Despite the question volume, board President Robert Lindgren later conceded, most of those in attendance hadn’t joined the Zoom-delivered session for that.

Directors also unanimously agreed to temporarily suspend any district policy that was inconsistent with current or future emergency health and safety plans as a way to avoid “potential unintended consequences,” district Solicitor Marc Davis said. The action attracted no public response.

Instead what the audience arrived for, Lindgren and others made clear as the more than 3-hour-and-40-minute meeting progressed, were as many details available on district plans to reopen classes Aug. 31, the scheduled first day of school for Pottsgrove’s roughly 3,300 students.

They received few specifics. A draft of the overall health and safety plan was completed only Monday (July 13), Superintendent Dr. William Shirk said, and won’t be ready for public release until late this week at the earliest.

Also during Tuesday’s Pottsgrove meeting:

Letter: Teachers’ Union Leaders Denied ‘Place at Table’
Christopher Stango Named Ringing Rocks Principal

Those who persevered until the meeting’s 11:11 p.m. close did learn:

  • The district is “leaning,” according to Shirk, toward a hybrid or blended program that uses both in-building class time with teachers and online education, as well as a full online model through the district’s Pottsgrove Virtual Academy;
  • Even that’s not carved in stone. The COVID-19 environment is changing so rapidly, Shirk noted, that plans could be altered again “in the next couple of days.” They have already been revised five times, he added;
  • Its plans for virtual classes will involve what Shirk separately described as “more interactivity,” and “more accountability.” Both goals result from what the district and teachers learned during virtual classes and online exercises presented from April through the end of the school year;
  • No student, no family, and no staff members will be forced, according to Lindgren, to return to Pottsgrove buildings. Those who do return to the campus, if that remains an option, will be protected to every extent possible. “It’s been our baseline understanding from the beginning,” Lindgren said. “We are going to take care of all of our people;”
  • Parents will be asked to choose a learning platform for each student, if more than one remains, and commit them to stay with it “for at least a semester,” Shirk said. Platforms could be changed in an emergency, or on a semester-by-semester basis;
  • The district will not engage in testing students or staff for virus infection. It intends to work with the Montgomery County Health Department to provide that service if needed. Shirk said the county also could provide contact tracing assistance if needed;
  • Component plans for students with special education or other needs will be issued with or following the overall plan; and
  • If on-campus attendance is offered, Business Administrator David Nester observed, the district does not anticipate problems with busing, based on “extensive conversations” he’s had with busing contractor CMD Services Inc.

The board let the public ask typed questions and then answered them during two distinct periods. The first, at the start of the meeting and intended for only items on the agenda, was the portion most devoted to questions about the athletics plan. In the second, at the meeting’s end, the public could ask anything on any topic. That’s when what was on participants’ minds rose to the surface.

How will the district do this …? What if that …? To whom do we turn when …? Those queries kept recurring on almost every topic related to student education. “You’re coming up with questions we don’t have answers to,” director Jim Lapic admitted. His colleague, Dr. Charles Nippert, was more at odds with the meeting forum. Zoom, he proclaimed, “is not the format for discussion.”

Lindgren publicly apologized for not fully understanding the audience’s desires. “We’re not meeting your expectations on any level,” he said.

Shirk recognized the mood as a reflection of many of those working on the overall plan. “We understand your frustration,” he told the crowd in speaking for the board and the administrative team. “Because we’re frustrated too. Every day I think this is a daunting task. Then I hear the thoughts you’re thinking out there, and see it’s daunting for you too.”

“We will err on the side of caution,” Shirk said. “If we can’t justify the ends or the means, then things will be shut down” and the virtual academy will serve as the default option, he indicated.

The board intends to hold another special meeting July 30 (Thursday), after the public has had time to scrutinize the overall plan. That meeting, Lindgren hoped, won’t be on Zoom. “We want to see you. We want to communicate face-to-face,” he said, although the logistics must still be worked out.