Back in March, COVID-19 plowed through the country, the disruption from concerns about its possible effects being akin to the typical bull in a china shop, and the school system here in Westmoreland County was no exception. While everybody hunkered down and worked on learning through meeting sessions in Zoom and other applications, there was a burning question in the back of everyone’s mind: “What happens with the next school year?”

Well, that burning little question was one of the items that came up at the Westmoreland County School Board meeting last week when Superintendent Dr. Michael Perry presented three possible options for how to deal with educating the students. The first option would go for a full in-person learning schedule like normal for five days a week. The second option was far more cautious, testing the waters with their feet, so to speak, with a hybrid approach that combined in-class learning with electronic meetings. The last option would be distance learning via Zoom meetings.

“We firmly believe that our families deserve options when it comes to the environment that we’re currently involved in as far as instructing the children,” Dr. Perry explained. “You’ll also find that there are shared elements in each of these plans.”

Dr. Perry gave a highlights reel of what each plan entailed, starting with the one that had students going through the full week in school, albeit with CDC safety guidelines in place.

Naturally, the main concern of the situation revolves around fears about the virus, with many staff sharing concerns.

“I’d like to assure you we’ve been listening to teachers,” Dr. Perry explained. “Some teachers contacted division officers, contacted me, and their principals, and I can say to you there are strong concerns, possibly even fears, when it comes to bringing all our kids back in the building.

“There have also been concerns for some of our staff, particularly those who are a bit older or have underlying conditions, with coming back face-to-face,” he continued. “When you talk to teachers, the fear is palpable, to the point that some would consider retirement instead of going into a building for face-to-face.”

According to Dr. Perry, there are a few teachers that feel they need to go back to doing face-to-face learning, virus or no virus. However, considering that those most vulnerable to the virus are those of advanced age or with underlying health issues, the concerns are certainly not unfounded. After all, half of the people that have died since the virus arrived on our shore were people that lived in nursing homes. However, there have been quite a few studies worldwide about COVID-19 and whether it can be spread through schools, as what can happen with other illnesses like the common cold, as well as the flu.

In several countries, including Iceland and France, for example, there have been no signs of transmission of the virus from children to adults, though it can still happen in some cases. Plenty of businesses that have also been open throughout the pandemic have not caused spikes either, due to having taken the necessary measures and precautions.

Next, there’s 100% remote, which quite a few people have been trying to push the division towards. While this does keep everyone away from each other, it’s no substitute for face-to-face learning, as the disaster that was Fairfax County’s attempt at virtual learning can attest. Fortunately, the division has had plenty of time to prepare for the upcoming school year, having worked on procuring plenty of chromebooks for students, as well as hotspots for those without internet access.  The other major problem with 100% virtual learning is that many parents have to stay with their kids, and thus are unable to go work.

“There have been parents and teachers insisting that we go 100% remote,” he continued, “I can say that as a division, when you start talking about remote learning, we are better off than we were when all this started.

“Although a lot of people are looking for 100% remote learning, one of the things that is left out is that even in remote learning, the expectation is that teachers will enter the building, since that’s where your resources are. It may be the safest choice, but not the most efficient.”

The last option, which was the one the School Board agreed to for the time being, was the hybrid model, an attempt to go middle-of-the-road between face-to-face and virtual learning. Dr. Perry explained the basis for this model, which was the near 50-50 split (53% for hybrid, 47% for remote, to be exact) in a survey that had been conducted, as well as the aforementioned situation of parents having to stay home with their kids during remote learning.

“We have parents where leaving their children home alone is not ideal to say the least,” he explained,” It affects their work habits and child-care; it’s not an ideal situation. If we were to do hybrid, all the physical distancing and mask-wearing precautions will be in place in the schools for both employees and students.”

The hybrid schedule would involve students alternating between face-to-face instruction and remote learning, with the calendar consisting of “blue week” and “gold week” so as to allow the students to be able to keep their distance. The custodial staff in the school buildings has also been engaged in a rather serious regimen of cleaning, leaving the buildings sanitized and probably smelling like a truck full of hand sanitizer exploded.

While the hybrid model was the one that was agreed upon, the School Board made it clear that if circumstances changed, the plan may very well change too, due in no small part to all the unknowns involved with the Wuhan virus. In the end, it’s clear that Westmoreland County’s School Board are hoping for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

School board hopes for the best while preparing for the worst