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South Western to split students, stagger school days

(L to R): Solicitor Gareth Pahowka, board President Vanessa Berger and Superintendent Dr. Jay Burkhart discuss armed security guards at the South Western School Board meeting Wednesday, June 27, 2018.

Students at South Western School District would attend class in person no more than three days a week under one of the first plans in York County to not aim for a full fall reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan, unveiled Wednesday night, would see students split into two groups and eliminate the need for a universal mask requirement, said Superintendent Jay Burkhart.

The first group would attend classes Mondays, Wednesdays and every other Friday. The other group would be at the school on Tuesdays, Thursdays and alternate Fridays with the first.

The move would allow for social distancing, thereby reducing the need for masks, said Burkhart at Wednesday's school board meeting.

On the other days, they would learn at home virtually.

On Thursday, state Health Secretary Rachel Levine reiterated that masks are mandatory at schools and on buses when social distancing is not possible, under Gov Tom Wolf's recent order. 

Students with individualized education plans, such as special ed or gifted ed students, would be permitted to attend full-time. 

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“I would never knowingly put your children in harm’s way and neither would our team," Burkhart said.

Dr. Jay Burkhart will be South Western School District's new superintendent starting in August.

The district consulted with an infectious disease epidemiologist on its plan, Burkhart said, and under state Health Secretary Rachel Levine’s guidance, students can remove their masks while 6 feet apart.

The A/B schedule of alternating groups of students is a plan which some area schools have proposed for high school, Burkhart said, but this would be for K-12.

What won him over in addition to health guidelines was parent input.

According to a recent survey of parents, 61.5% of elementary school parents preferred the hybrid reopening without masks over 38.5% who preferred a traditional opening with masks.

And 59.6% compared to 40.4% of secondary parents also preferred the A/B reopening.

At least people 75 attended Wednesday night's school board meeting in the high school auditorium as officials spent an hour detailing what the plan would look like.

Distance learning days would include more options for synchronous, or live, lessons, when possible, and one learning platform for K-12 would be used for convenience.

For working parents, officials said they can be flexible on when learning takes place.

In hallways and on buses, however, students must wear masks, as well as any areas where social distancing cannot be maintained. Bus arrivals would be staggered, and drivers would wear face shields.

Doors would be propped when possible in bathrooms and classrooms. Music class would require singing with a mask, and rehearsals would be restricted to 45 minutes

Fewer students would be out at recess, and equipment bags would be limited to each classroom. Outdoor classes would be held when feasible, and there would be no field trips or nonessential visitors.

"We want to cohort our students to keep them together as much as possible,” Burkhart said.

But some residents were hesitant about the protective measures, asking why cohorting is so important when students are still allowed to travel for sports.

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And several working parents questioned how it would work, with one adding that it would cost an extra $1,000 a month for day care. 

Teachers in the district spoke up as well, concerned they would have to be the "mask police" in certain situations where it was required or fearful that the lack of a mask mandate posed a danger to faculty and staff.

Burkhart said his understanding was that, under the state health guidance, the 6-foot distance is safe, but that could change as new guidance comes in.

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“(At) 3:30 today, things changed again," he said, referencing new guidance from the governor Wednesday on indoor gatherings. "This plan will probably change."

In fact, the state's Education Secretary was slated to release new guidance for schools Thursday.

Burkhart said the board will likely vote on a new version as early as Aug. 10. In the meantime, the proposed plan was approved 7-2, with board members Richard Plesic and Clint Wright voting against it.