Mars begins to detail safety plan

Back to school options detailed

August 5, 2020 Cranberry Local News

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Back-to-back virtual meetings Tuesday night introduced the Mars Area community to some of the details of the district's reopening plans.

With parents and teachers commenting on the ins and outs of the 2020-21 year, the school board approved a revised calendar Tuesday that makes the first day of school for students Aug. 31.

The rearranged schedule moves two in-service days from Nov. 10 and April 6 to the week leading up to students' first day of school. This allows teachers to participate in five consecutive days of professional development, geared specifically toward technology acclimation.

“We need to support the teachers,” said Mark Gross, superintendent. “It does not change the end date on the original calendar.”

The state has directed schools to begin “phased re-openings” 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.

Mars Area's health and safety planning committee — a conglomerate of district officials, teachers and parents — participated in Tuesday's Zoom forum in two rooms to ensure appropriate capacity. John Kennedy, board president, said participants were social distancing and allowed to remove their masks if they felt comfortable doing so.

The 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.

Delving into an explanation of LSI, Gross explained camera placement will take into consideration identity protection for children and audio monitoring.

A video of the livestream procedure was posted Tuesday on the district's YouTube channel. Gross said this was done so district families could see what LSI would be like before the forum.

“We couldn't do it live for a group this large,” Gross said. “Classroom teachers won't have (that) problem.”

Jennifer Bainbridge, a district parent, said she appreciated the YouTube video. She asked if instructional activities like “circle time” for younger students will still be implemented. Gross said while these activities may look different, teachers will be able to offer a version of collaborative activities.

LSI doesn't require students to be online all day, according to Gross. When appropriate, teachers will be able to tell students when to leave the virtual classroom to go work on assignments. Class work will also be posted in case students miss a class.

Leah Kaunert said her child has an individualized education plan (IEP). Kaunert said she watched the LSI example before the meeting.

“I 100 percent appreciated it,” Kaunert said.

Still, Kaunert asked how the district plans to accommodate students with special needs who traditionally need to switch classrooms during the day for their IEP.

Gross, who is a former special education teacher, said officials continue to look into special education instruction for the health and safety plan.

While the application is still being worked through, Gross said the district has released a “checklist” for families to see which attendance option most accommodates them. Specific issues will be addressed privately and case-by-case.

“We're going to have a lot of discussions,” Gross said. “I know that sounds very vanilla.”

Christy Franck argued LSI takes a “step back” in education. She specifically reminded district families to consider Mars Area Cyber Academy.

“I encourage you to reach out to all of the Mars teachers,” Franck said. “We can do better to support all of our students.”

Recognizing there are still discussions to be had and work to be done, Gross said he understood the concerns of district parents and staff. The key is for the district to be flexible in “a polarized society.”

“Your greatest commodity and asset is your child,” Gross said. “I can guarantee we'll do our best. I hope you can trust that.”

A FAQ page and informative videos are accessible on the district website and YouTube channel. A survey will be issued to district families Wednesday through Sunday to ask how parents plan to send each of their children to school.

The board will vote on the health and safety plan in the coming weeks.

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal