The Fairview Area School District board decided in a narrow 5-4 vote during its Monday meeting to have all grades return to school in-person and full-time beginning April 12.
Treasurer Rhonda Myers, Secretary Lauren K. Clark, and board members Lashay Kalathas, Jack Liller and David Millstein voted for reopening the schools full-time while Board President Marcy Van Metre, Vice President Jennifer Holz and members Joshua Laird and Earl Shutt voted against it.
The vote went against the recommendations of four of the five district administrators who spoke.
Patricia Weber, principal of Fairfield Area Middle School, Brian McDowell, principal of Fairfield Area High School, Daniel Watkins, district special education supervisor, and Superintendent Michael Adamek all recommended remaining on the hybrid model through the end of the school year.
Barbara Richwine, principal of Fairfield Area Elementary School, said that she recommended fully reopening her school. She wanted to begin on April 13 since most of the school staff who received vaccines would be fully vaccinated by then.
Administrators who opposed reopening expressed a number of logistical concerns including the likelihood of another outbreak and the difficulty of finding substitutes. The secondary schools were closed from March 8-23 due to the number of positive COVID-19 cases.
Administrators expressed concern that another closure would disrupt standardized testing scheduled for May.
Parents and students express different opinions
Recent parent surveys showed that most parents support going to school five days a week with social distancing. In elementary school, 89 percent of parents said their children would return and 11 percent said no. Without social distancing, those numbers dropped to 73 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Only 30 percent of the elementary parents who responded said that they wanted their children to stay in a hybrid school model, with 70 percent disagreeing.
In middle school, 85 percent of parents said they would send their child to school with social distancing. That number dropped to 71 percent without social distancing.
Only 34 percent of parents said they wanted to keep their children on a hybrid schedule for the rest of the year.
In high school, 86 percent of parents said they would send their kids back to school with social distancing. That number dropped to 66 percent without social distancing.
About 40 percent of parents preferred to stay on a hybrid schedule for the rest of the year.
The student surveys showed different results.
According to Weber, about 40 8th-grade students responded to their poll. Of those, 77.5 percent (31 students) wanted to remain on a hybrid schedule while 22.5 percent (9 students) wanted to return full-time. Some respondents indicated that they were concerned about becoming ill with the novel coronavirus.
In high school, 137 students responded. Of those, 53 percent said they had a job and 15 percent were taking college classes.
Over half wanted to stay on a hybrid schedule, with 63.5 percent indicating that they preferred that schedule rather than returning full-time. When asked if they’d return or transition to cyber learning if the school did reopen, 76 percent said they would go back to the school.
Two board members commented that the student results unsurprisingly showed more desire to remain on a hybrid schedule than the parents’ survey did. They compared the survey question to asking children if they’d rather eat sweets or a nutritious meal.
McDowell said that while he acknowledged that adults must make the decisions, he wanted the children to be heard.
“I think it’s important, particularly at the high school level, that the student voice is there… part of my job as the high school principal is to advocate for students,” McDowell said. “They have a voice. Part of my job is to advocate for what they say, so while I understand what the school board is saying, I think that it is important if the students say something, that at least that voice is heard.”
McDowell said some students have college classes and/or work schedules that may be difficult to work around a normal school schedule.
Watkins said that students with an individualized education program do much better receiving in-person learning available to them now. If infection rates rise and schools close, special education students who were benefiting would have to attend school virtually. Watkins was concerned that their learning would suffer.
McDowell and Weber also noted changes outside of school that may affect students. Weber said that although there are more failing grades this year than last year, she believes many students know the material and simply haven’t completed the work. Weber said one student she heard from says she has more to do around the house than before.
“Their lives have changed,” Weber said. “They’re doing things that two years ago they didn’t necessarily do around the house.”
Students are given opportunities to try to catch up, according to Weber.
Myers will retire
In other business, the board accepted Myers’ resignation effective Tuesday.
“It’s been a pleasure,” Myers said.
The next board meeting will be held at 7:00 p.m. Monday, April 12.