Working on Strategies to Slow 'Community Spread'

Working on Strategies to Slow 'Community Spread'
Posted on 03/11/2020
Good evening!

Just off the phone earlier this evening with Bucks County superintendents, the Directors of the Intermediate Unit, County Health Department, and Bucks County Emergency Operations Center. It’s the third phone conference of the week sharing information and updates regarding the coronavirus. We have another scheduled for late tomorrow and again on Friday!

While the classroom environment has not changed for your students, what is going on outside of our schools is changing rapidly. As most of you already learned today, the World Health Organization has declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Also, the Centers for Disease Control released its Implementation of Community Mitigation Strategy. Please take a minute to review this document in its entirety. While “community spread” of the coronavirus may not have entered Bucks County borders yet, it’s only a matter of time. So, staying ahead of things is paramount to the health of everyone in our community. So what should you and I be thinking about as an objective and strategy to protect students, faculty and staff and other loved ones at home?

Interestingly, Tom Bossert, a Quakertown ‘93 graduate and former Homeland Security official wrote an opinion article that was published in Monday’s Washington Post. He said, “The near-term objective should be to reduce the acute, exponential growth of the outbreak, to reduce suffering and the strain on our health-care system. That will require significant effort, but it can work, as we have seen: Hong Kong and Singapore have achieved linear growth of COVID-19 cases, staving off the terrifying exponential upward curve confronting Italy and pushing both the infection rate down and new cases out on the timeline.” In other words, to mitigate the impact on our community, specifically the pressure and taxing on our hospital and healthcare systems, we should implement CDC strategies to slow down the “community spread” by implementing local prevention measures and routinely providing caution about healthy habits. Today, Dr. Jay Butler, Deputy Director of Infectious Diseases at CDC, said the goal is to slow and contain the disease to distribute the impact over the longer term (a period of several months) rather than several weeks.

Referring to the first column on page 4 of the CDC’s Implementation of Community Mitigation Strategy, we are well down the road of the preparedness phase. We can not do this alone! For many of these strategies to be effective, we are relying on YOU to assist us. For example, please take the time to learn about the symptoms of COVID-19, then if your child(ren) is/are sick, please notify us at school and keep them home, ensure your students use healthy habits of handwashing, and clean and disinfect frequently high touched areas in your home. We are doing our best with that in our schools and on our Levy school buses.

Tomorrow afternoon, all Bucks County superintendents, along with IU and health officials will be discussing “minimal to moderate” mitigation strategies - the second column strategies on page 4. These include reducing the frequency and size of gatherings of students, families and friends inside schools, eg. assemblies, concerts, and other school performances, Spring Flings, etc. While guidance may change tomorrow, for right now, all of the activities and events scheduled between now through Sunday will still be held. As you consider participation in these activities, please consider CDC’s guidelines on age appropriateness. What could possibly come out of tomorrow’s discussion is the cancellation of all large gatherings and non-school day activities that are conducted inside our schools between this Monday and April 14th, the Tuesday after Spring break. Athletic participation has not been discussed yet, but we expect to continue to support outside practice and competitions.

Yesterday’s superintendent conversation touched on the ‘Substantial’ column on page 4, of the Implementation of Mitigation Strategies - what happens if we close a school or the district. That is the most frequently asked question I have received from our school community. We learned that not one school or school district closure in Pennsylvania has been directed by state or county health officials. So far, school closure decisions have been unilaterally made by superintendents. We discussed the legal opinion rendered to school districts across Pennsylvania that addresses COVID-19 in regards to federal and state education requirements, local decision making about closing school districts, and eLearning.

It is clear from our countywide discussion, that each superintendent has their own community variables that will shape their decision. For Quakertown, we will follow the law, and what we know as “best practices” in education. Under current federal and state education laws, regulations, and guidelines, eLearning or distance education for academic attendance credit is not an option for Quakertown, nor is it for 99.9 percent of other public school districts for any extended period of time. It is not because we can not make it happen. We can! We have the instructional leadership and teaching capacity to make it happen overnight. QCSD has been a leader in educational technology for well over a decade and we have great teachers.

What stands in our way of offering an online/distance education model is our inability to provide a Free and Appropriate Public Education to ALL Quakertown students. Besides a legal issue, it’s an excellence and equity issue. The legal issue is our obligation to meet the provisions of the Individual Education Plan of more than 900 students every day in our classrooms. For many of them, providing the required supports and accommodations remotely would be near impossible. We also have 34 percent of our population - 1,700 students - that live in poverty. While we can provide every student in Quakertown a computer tomorrow, some students do not have Internet access at home. Another challenge is meeting the needs and requirements of our 160 English Language Learners. The excellence issue goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. There is nothing that replaces a highly qualified and instructionally prepared teacher in front of your student(s) everyday. In addition, PDE has not yet provided any guidance that would allow us to substitute eLearning during a shutdown for our required 180 days of instruction, so missed days would have to be made up anyway.

Thank you for reading. I apologize for this blog’s length! I realize there is anxiety in our community about what may happen next. We look forward to your support, your input, and your patience. We have an awesome community and this pandemic shall pass.

Bill Harner

Superintendent

Email: wharner@qcsd.org

Twitter: @billharner
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