There was tenure to grant and work sessions to schedule. But at the Dec. 9 Delaware Valley school board meeting, Covid-19 continues to dominate the conversation.
The superintendent, Dr. John Bell, started off with “the transportation issues we’ve been having this week.” Last week 16 bus drivers were sidelined by Covid, with 12 testing positive and four more exposed through contact or experiencing symptoms. Bell said 32 bus runs were affected by the outbreak.
The district shut down completely on Dec. 7, and its regular schedule disrupted in the days to follow. Secondary and middle school students moved to remote learning, while elementary students attended in-person classes. Bus runs are made for Dingman-Delaware Primary and Shohola Elementary. Bell thanked the parents of Delaware Valley Elementary School, which does not have bus service, for bringing their children to campus. “They’ve been amazing this week,” he said.
At least 25 unmasked people attended the meeting. The mask debate that roiled the district since the start of the school year — which saw parents suing the school and record turnout at last month’s school board election — seems to be settled for the time being, with masks now optional in Pennsylvania school buildings. Just outside the auditorium, two masked school police officers passed out masks to people entering the meeting, saying, “They want you to wear masks.”
All students, including those with medical exemptions, must wear masks on school buses because of a federal mandate, Dr. Bell said. School board president Jack Fisher told a man who objected to the mandate to contact the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Also during the public comment session, Annastasia Theodoropoulos and Mark Redman were among the many speakers who said state mandates, especially contact tracing, have sent healthy children home without the education guaranteed by the Pennsylvania constitution. Theodoropoulos, whose fourth-grade daughter is enrolled in a commonwealth charter academy, compared Covid-19 to the flu.
“What is the percentage of students being sent home for contact tracing and the percentage of those who actually became sick? And could those be posted?” she asked. Bell said, “We are not changing the way we post numbers.”
Redman said contact tracing on the least vulnerable to Covid, children and adolescents, makes no sense. “If the district insists on contact tracing, and it should not, then exclusion rules should not favor vaccinated students,” he said. “To do so could be unlawful discrimination, and it’s certainly not based on science.”
Brian Fells asked how to report a teacher if a student “indirectly witnesses” the teacher telling a child it’s not okay to smile if you don’t have a mask on.
Some said the school should consider the antibodies developed in response to a Covid-19 infection. Amanda Feeley, teaches at Delaware Valley Elementary School, said “141 studies confirm” that natural immunity is more important than vaccine-induced immunity, and that unvaccinated children with natural immunity are being discriminated against. Fisher said the board was waiting for a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control urges all eligible people, including those with prior infections, to get their vaccinations and booster shots.
In his update posted Dec. 11, Bell said, “Our plan is to have everyone back in school and all buses running again on Monday, December 20.”
It was not to be. The bus drivers were still out as of Dec. 20, and no large buses will be operating in the district through Wednesday, Bell now says. He has tried to keep in-person learning going for all elementary students, who are most disadvantaged by remote learning, but that is changing this week. This week, students in all seven schools in the district may choose either Zoom or, if they can get transportation to campus, in the classroom.
“All staff will report to work as usual,” Bell said in his Dec. 19 update. “I appreciate everyone’s understanding as we try to provide multiple options to help as many families as possible. This hasn’t been easy but we greatly appreciate all of your help in trying to keep the kids learning in one form or another. At the same time, we wish a speedy recovery to everyone who is sick.”