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UPSD Students to Start School Year Online
Written by Bradley Schlegel, Staff Writer

            Students in the Upper Perkiomen School District will start the upcoming school year at home. On Tuesday, the school board voted to approve an action item adopting a full virtual instructional model for the start of the 2020-21 school year.

            During a special meeting held on Zoom, the members approved a recommendation from the administrators to begin classes in a combination of the Upper Perkiomen Online Learning Academy and another virtual platform until at least Nov. 20. Stringent school exclusion guidance standards, presented to the district by county and state officials, impacted Superintendent Allyn Roche's recommendation.

            In October, the board will discuss the possibility of transitioning to a hybrid model sometime between Thanksgiving and the winter recess, according to the superintendent.

            Stephen Cunningham cast the lone vote opposing the item.

            Beginning on Aug. 31, all elementary school students will have the opportunity to participate in the district's online learning academy or its virtual program. All secondary students will participate in the school's virtual program.

            Students in grades six through 12 will attend classes with a teacher providing live instruction in a fully virtual environment, according to Kimberly Bast the district's director of curriculum and instruction. She said the program will preserve the integrity of student learning, which is the district's primary focus.

            The vote to move to a fully virtual model did not close the door on the district supporting and transporting the students to the Western Montgomery Career and Technology Center for some face-to-face instruction, according to Nicole Gum, Upper Perkiomen's communications specialist.

            "It's too soon to say exactly what those plans will look like," Gum wrote in an email message received Wednesday morning.

            According to Roche, the board will discuss the future of extra-curricular activities, including fall sports, at an Aug. 13 public meeting.  Last month, the members approved voluntary practice for high school teams as part of an Athletic Health & Safety Return to Play Plan.

            Teachers will lead the classes from their rooms inside the school on Zoom, according to Roche. He said the proposed model is intended to mimic the normal school day.

            Administrators issued their recommendation after conferring with the Upper Perkiomen Education Association, according to Roche. He said the information they received on July 17 about the health and safety requirements of proceeding with in-person learning forced his team to reexamine its options.

            On July 13, administrators presented the board with three options to open the school at the end of next month. Two of them called for students receiving face-to-face instruction from teachers. However, the school exclusion guidance provided four days later by the Montgomery County's Department of Health and the Pennsylvania Department of Health made those plans inoperable. Roche called the requirements a game changer.

            According to county recommendations, any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 would be allowed to return to school three days after symptoms are no longer present. According to a presentation from Assistant Superintendent Andrea Farina, anyone who tests positive or is unable to get a test, may return to school after three days with no fever, an improvement in symptoms and 10 days since the symptoms first appeared.

            Anyone who makes close contact with anyone who has tested positive, which includes anybody who has been within six feet of the person or spent at least 15 minutes in his/her presence, as well as anyone who lives in the same residence, needs to be tested.

            A student or staff member with symptoms who tests negative will be allowed to return to school 14 days after the initial exposure and after symptoms have resolved. A person who tests positive would be required to follow the school guidance.

            A student or staff member without symptoms who makes close contact with anyone who has tested positive will be excluded for 14 days. Any related household contacts will be forced into quarantine until 14 days after the infected person is released from isolation.

            All students and staff would be mandated to wear face masks and shields, indoor and outdoor when six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. A student who tests positive for the novel coronavirus could impact eight students on a school bus under normal circumstances.

            "The potential is there to lose dozens of students and several teachers from one positive case," Farina said.

            In terms of the financial implications to hold school while maintaining the required six feet of social distance, the district would need to create 34 additional classrooms and hire 34 new teachers, at a cost of $3.25 million at its elementary schools, according to the assistant superintendent. She said the administrators didn't complete similar calculations for its secondary school, which does not have the required space to conduct safe in-person instruction.

            During the meeting, administrators also presented a hybrid option. It included two days of in-person teaching and three of virtual learning. However, the members accepted Roche's recommendation. 

            Board President Kerry Drake described the online method as the best option "in a sea of bad choices."





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