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Dallastown Area board rebuffs superintendent's recommendation against in-person classes

Dallastown Area Superintendent Joshua Doll

In a nearly 5½-hour meeting Thursday night into Friday morning, Dallastown Area's school board debated and ultimately tabled its superintendent's recommendations to move to an online-only school reopening model and cancel fall sports.

As the board was wrapping up around 1:10 a.m. Friday, nearly 1,000 viewers were still tuned in to the live stream. 

"I am a lover of a good debate, and this one did not disappoint," said resident Jackie Stevens after the vote. "Thank you all for passionately pleading your position."

The vote means that — by default, unless another decision is made before the start of school Sept. 8 — the district will implement its original brick-and-mortar reopening with two online options.

More:CLOSER LOOK: York County school districts' focus shifts to virtual learning amid shutdown uncertainty

Viewers fluctuated between about 1,600 and 2,200 throughout the night, and comments were overwhelmingly against the potential move to online only.

"We think the recommendation from the superintendent is knee-jerk and wrong-headed," said resident Al Granholm.

A number of York County district administrators made eleventh-hour proposals to their boards to forgo in-person learning after recent updated guidance from the state recommending districts switch to online or hybrid models.

More:Central, Northeastern wrangle with reopening, mandates days before doors open

Dallastown is the third district this week — following Central York and Northeastern on Monday — to wrestle with a switch before eventually sticking to its original plans.

Only two districts in York County so far have chosen to start their year virtually — West Shore, which made the decision back in July, and York City, whose board voted on Wednesday.

Lincoln Charter School also announced last week it would be starting the year with remote learning only, with the exception of certain at-risk student groups, which would meet in person.

More:West Shore schools to reopen wholly online, transition later

More:York City school board opts for online-only classes through October

For Dallastown, there was no single tipping point for the proposal to switch.

In a community letter Wednesday, Superintendent Joshua Doll cited several factors that led him to recommend online learning.

For one, 105 high school band camp students and eight band staff had to quarantine for 14 days after close contact with someone deemed a probable carrier of COVID-19.

Dallastown Area Middle School in York Township, Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Coupled with the updated guidance from the state, staff not returning to work and a shortage of substitutes, Doll landed on his recommendation to go online-only for the first trimester.

That would have put students in a remote learning environment through Dec. 4.

Doll pitched the proposal as the best option to ensure consistency and continuity of education, when only a handful of positive cases could lead the district to a 5-day to 7-day shutdown, and transitioning to online is not as easy as a "flip of a switch."

Also, surveys had shown a dwindling interest in the in-person option from June to August, sliding from 84% to 66%.

He said he wanted to be proactive rather than reactive to the virus, as unexpected shutdowns would not give families much of a heads up. 

But board member Anthony Pantano said if the board had approved an online plan Thursday, there would be no heads up for working parents who would be facing an impossible situation immediately.

"We can’t just punt and create this problem for all these families," he said. "These situations aren’t one-offs."

The debate came down to a push-pull between blaming the state for its changing recommendations and taking responsibility as a district with local control.

It would be unfair to focus on hypothetical shutdowns, like a solution searching for a problem, Pantano said.

Board member Sarah Hostler agreed, saying the board knew its reopening plan was fluid and recommendations could change daily back when they approved it in July.

With more than 6,400 students, the district is too big for a hybrid model to be practical, Doll said, so the online option was the best solution he had.

But several board members and many residents agreed that a few days in school would be better than none at all and were just appreciative of having that option.

"As I've heard, there's no one right answer," said resident Andrea Moyers Bloss. "The best thing I can say is we all were given a choice."