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Boyertown School Board Rejects Online Recommendation
Written by Bradley Schlegel, Staff Writer

            Despite increasing concerns over the spread of the novel coronavirus and a potential teacher shortage, the Boyertown Area School Board rejected a motion to start the 2020-21 school year on a full virtual platform last week.

            A majority of members voted not to accept a recommendation by Superintendent Dana Bedden, developed in collaboration with the district's teachers union, to hold online classes for all students during the initial nine weeks of the upcoming school year.

            Bedden told the members that COVID-19 cases in Berks County had increased significantly since they approved a scaffolded opening on July 28.

            He explained that the county's positivity rate recently jumped more than one percent, and that maintaining the health and safety of its students, teachers and staff in a classroom environment due to increased health and safety concerns will be difficult. 

            Bedden said the county's 5.7 percent positivity rate has placed it on the state's watch list.

            A presentation by Michael R. Stoudt, the district's assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, pointed out that several neighboring districts – including Upper Perkiomen, Spring-Ford, PerkiomenValley and Pottsgrove – have already committed to starting the school year 100 percent online.

            "The district is in dire need of shifting to virtual classes," Bedden said during the Aug. 6 meeting, hosted on Zoom. "We're trending in the wrong direction."

            During more than three hours of debate, four members expressed their willingness to stick with the hybrid plan, which calls for relocating fifth and sixth graders to the middle school and has seventh, eighth and ninth graders share the high school with sophomores, juniors and seniors on an alternating schedule as well as an online platform.

            Brophy said he was "kind of disappointed" that the presentation was written to convince the board to approve a full virtual opening. He also objected to the board shifting gears just less than two weeks after approving its hybrid approach.

            "We can't turn around after 10 days and tell the parents that we were only kidding, and to forget what we told you," Brophy said.

            Updegrove said the district was required to give the children the education they will need in their lives. Neiman argued that canceling in-person classes would exacerbate the situation for students suffering from physical and mental abuse. She also described a survey by parents representing 4,250 students who want to return to brick and mortar schools as enough evidence to block the virtual proposal.

            "I don't know if I can go this route," Neiman said. "We need to have teachers in there teaching the kids."

            Dierolf told the members she has received several email messages from parents upset about a potential change. She also expressed dismay that the board had to reconsider the matter.

"It's very disheartening that this is before us again," she said.

            According to Bedden, coronavirus cases in the Berks County are trending higher. He said a 5.7 percent positivity rate has placed the county on the state's watch list.

            "Things have changed," said the superintendent, who reminded Brophy that the situation has always been fluid and that administrators might need to pivot. "The data shows we have a problem. We may not be able to meet our educational standards due to a lack of staff."

            The district could face a significant teacher shortage when school starts. According to Bedden, 39 have already opted out. Twelve teachers have already been approved for leave for medical reasons, maternal issues, child rearing or Sabbaticals, according to Stoudt's presentation. The district's human resources department plans to meet with 27 additional teachers as of Aug. 3.

            Barbara Richard, its interim director, told the told the members that several teachers had sent her emails during the meeting requesting paperwork to apply for leave. She said the district may not have enough certified teachers when the school year starts Aug. 31.

            "It's very much a concern," Richard said.

            According to Michael Ludwig, a member of the Boyertown Area Education Association's Executive Committee, teachers in the district prefer the 100 percent virtual option.

            He told the board that 80 percent of 352 respondents to a survey are very concerned about teaching in the district's scaffolded plan due to health and safety concerns. Ludwig described the superintendent's proposal as the most effective approach to keep the students and staff healthy.

            "We are extremely excited and eager to get back to work," said Ludwig, a physical education teacher at Middle School West. "But health and safety have to be the number one priority."





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