The Tunkhannock Area School District has been planning for four different scenarios that could take shape this fall.
“The first is that we could return under normal conditions,” said Superintendent Heather McPherson. “The second is that we would return with social distancing, screening capabilities, etc. in place. The third scenario is that we would return, and then we would have to close again in the fall. The fourth scenario is that we cannot return, that we would be in the red in the fall.”
During a “Restart Rebound Rebuild” webinar with the Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce on June 17, McPherson explained the school district’s ideas for bringing students back.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education recently put out preliminary guidance for reopening schools in the 2020-2021 academic year. McPherson noted in this evolving situation, plans for Tunkhannock Area schools are subject to change.
“This is an extremely fluid time right now,” she said.
The PDE guidance suggests having a plan for each phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 reopening protocol, she said. Wyoming County is currently in the least restrictive green phase.
McPherson said the district needs a plan that’s agile enough to serve students who get sick and need to stay home, as well as students who cannot return because of an at-risk relative or being at risk themselves.
Academic preparation is the second priority to ensure that students could move on to the next grade level, or for seniors, enter the workforce or go to college.
Possible risks in the future include an academic slide, safety, and availability of supplies.
“I see the biggest threat to us right now as cyber charter enrollment,” McPherson said. “They’re advertising really hard and I need the community to understand the real cost of cyber charter.”
When a student living in the district enrolls in a cyber charter school, Tunkhannock Area schools lose $15,000 per student, and $34,000 each for those in special education. Last year, the district lost $1.5 million for 72 students enrolled in cyber charter schools.
“Those are your tax dollars and they’re walking out the door,” she said.
Her fear is that if families who cannot send their children back to the brick and mortar schools don’t have an alternative, they may turn to cyber charters.
Last year, Tunkhannock Area started its own cyber program Fusion C3, but it only served students in grades 8-12.
Fusion C3 students enjoyed learning from Tunkhannock teachers and having the ability to participate in on-campus electives, but the “canned” courses through Edmentum and Accelerate were an immediate flaw the administration noticed.
“Very early on, we realized we wanted to build our own courses, then the pandemic hit,” she said. “It has fast tracked our desire to build these courses and to expand our Fusion C3 program K-12.”
Available this coming school year, the district will move to the online platform Canvas for all students, including those enrolled in Fusion C3.
“It is extremely versatile and it will give us the agility to not only serve those students whose parents or grandparents don’t want them to return, but it will allow kids to stay home when they’re sick,” she said. “The kids at home will be moving along at the same pace with a TASD teacher.”
Aside from expanding Fusion C3 to all grade levels, this summer’s focus is building a program through Canvas that mirrors what’s happening in the classrooms and training teachers to use it simultaneously with in-person instruction.
“Kids that are here will also be working on devices and learning how to use this platform in the classroom so that if we go out again, they’re going to know it,” McPherson said.
A one-to-one technology initiative seeks to give each student their own device, and the district plans to continue addressing internet connectivity issues for families.
Tunkhannock may utilize space at the former Mehoopany Elementary School, which would allow K-6 students to have full time instruction with 10-12 children per classroom.
Scheduling for grades 7-12 remains up in the air, but McPherson said having students alternate between in-person and at-home schooling on opposite days could work.
Protocols are being developed for keeping buildings and shared modes of transportation sanitized.
“We ask the community to be patient and to trust us,” McPherson said. “We will be prepared on all fronts.”