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NEW RULES FOR SCHOOL: Districts plan for start of classes

August 4, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

Freshman Ryan Nesbitt wears a clown costume during circus day Monday at the Mars Area High School's band camp. He is playing the baritone horn. Harold Aughton/Butler Eagle

In mathematics, they're called “variables.”

A “variable” is a number that has the potential to change based on the context of the math problem or experiment surrounding it.

To hold the place of this unknown quantity, the solver usually represents it with a letter like “x.”

X?

“X” marks the spot. See Spot run. Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run.

This train of thinking is similar to the conditions school officials face when it comes to planning this school year. It's a case of leaping, fevered, sometimes disjointed facts and plans issued by entities trying to keep up with changing times.

With a recent uptick in reported COVID-19 cases and competing mandates at the state and federal level, the future is uncertain. And the variables are numerous.

Emily Brittain Elementary School empty classroom. Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

“It's been exceptionally busy,” said Thomas Samosky, superintendent of Moniteau School District. “We've had to be very thoughtful.”

Moniteau School Board approved a health and safety plan July 20 that anticipates a start date of Sept. 8.

The state has directed schools to begin “phased reopenings” based on the color of the county. For counties that have gone green, like Butler County, schools are permitted to offer in-person instruction after developing a written health and safety plan.

Plans need to be approved by school boards and then posted on district websites.

Moniteau's plan pursues a brick-and-mortar return to school, according to Samosky.

“We are looking to go back to an in-person school setting,” Samosky said. “We are trying to find solutions.”

As it now stands, Moniteau's plan includes an option for students who are uncomfortable attending class in person to enroll in the cyber school platform Edgenuity. Families are asked to commit to the program for at least one grading quarter and notify the district by Aug. 10 of their interest.

Contingency plans are in place in case Gov. Tom Wolf shifts the county back to a yellow or red phase.

Emily Brittain Elementary School Seb Foltz/Butler Eagle

Just in case

Contingency is something with which new Mars Area School District Superintendent Mark Gross is familiar.

The district announced in June that while the health and safety planning process was underway, final decisions will be postponed until close to the start of school.

The idea is to provide families with the most accurate information possible, according to district officials.

“I have always felt that adversity creates resiliency,” Gross said. “And with resiliency comes an opportunity for growth.”

Mars Area's planning committee has identified three options for students in the fall: Students can return to a traditional setting five days a week, participate in livestream interaction (LSI) or enroll in the Mars Area Cyber Academy.

A draft of the plan was released in July and is expected to launch Aug. 26. The board hasn't yet given final approval.

In a July 23 message to parents, Gross said LSI is believed to be the “most critical piece” of the plan. LSI must be interactive, relevant and rigorous, according to the district.

“There are instructional options,” Gross said. “This past spring called upon all of us to re-evaluate how we provide instruction to our students as well as to consider new options for teaching our students remotely.”

'Learning Pathways'

The appearance of education may be changing. But Brian White, superintendent of Butler Area School District, recognizes a core that remains the same.

“Our mission is to prepare our students to succeed in an ever-changing global society,” White said. “That hasn't changed.”

Butler Area is offering families three “learning pathways” this year. Students can attend school in-person, online or a combination of the two.

“They are designed to be flexible,” White said. “Students can actually move between pathways throughout the year as needed.”

That sort of balance might be key to planning ahead. Conflicting views at the state and federal level means many education leaders are seeking support locally.

“Our biggest challenge is the constantly changing and sometimes conflicting information we are receiving from Gov. Wolf, PDE and the PA Department of Health,” White said.

Samosky, who became superintendent in January, said he's come to rely on regular meetings between district officials in Butler County.

“The Butler County school systems all work very closely together,” Samosky said. “As a new superintendent ... it's been invaluable.”

Cooperation doesn't just stop at the district level. Samosky said he's been impressed by resources extended through the county commissioners' offices and Butler Health System. And he finds the Moniteau staff and school board a “critical component.”

Parental involvement

Part of keeping that support system alive is focusing on the people closest to home: parents.

“We need their feedback,” Samosky said, “so we know the kids are able to experience what they love.”

Mars is planning a public forum after Tuesday's school board meeting specific to the health and safety plan.

Gross said this is an opportunity for “open dialogue” when announcing the forum. The intention is to bring some organization to a seemingly chaotic future.

“We will be in good shape to welcome our students back to school,” Gross said.

“We have learned a lot over the past six months,” White said. “This year is going to look a little bit different, but we are excited to welcome your children back to school.”

Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal