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Philly-Area School District’s Commitment To In-Person Classes Tested By COVID Surge

112520-Quakertown-School-District-portraits-12-768x512.jpg
Matt Smith for Keystone Crossroads
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The exterior of Quakertown Community High School on Nov. 25, 2020, in Quakertown, Pa.

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, Superintendent William Harner roved Quakertown Senior High School looking for trouble.

He wasn’t looking for typical teenage trouble — your bathroom vapers and hallway scufflers. He was looking for viral trouble — warning signs of potential COVID-19 transmission.

The classrooms looked OK. It seemed they could keep three-to-six feet of space between desks, as promised.

“But we’re crunched in a couple places,” Harner admitted. “The problem there is the hallways. They just look like regular class changes.”

His survey came on the first day that the Quakertown Community School District welcomed middle and high school students back on a full-time basis. About three-quarters had taken the Bucks County district up on its offer, with another quarter choosing all-virtual instruction instead.

It had already been a bumpy week — in a school year spent slaloming between challenges.

A day earlier, Harner shut down one of the elementary schools because of a suspected coronavirus outbreak. Just before making that decision, he’d sat with a group of teachers and asked for their trust as they prepared to transition out of hybrid.

“I was going around the middle school saying, ‘Hey, guys, please stay with us,’” Harner said. “‘Don’t stay home teachers. Don’t go sick.’”

Harner walked a tightrope that seemed to narrow by the day.

His school board wanted classrooms open five days a week. His teachers were increasingly wary. His son, a pulmonologist in the armed forces, was in his ear, warning him about the dangers COVID-19 posed.

Elsewhere in the region, with case counts surging, schools were going (or staying) all virtual. His district was doing the opposite.

“I don’t expect to shut down,” Harner said that day. “But that could change over night. Because, you never know.”

Why Quakertown?

Open or closed? Virtual or in-person?

Every school in America seems to be playing a game of reopening chicken — even more so now that cases are surging and the holiday season has arrived.

Quakertown, unlike many of its peers, has pushed forward with its reopening plan in spite of the state’s viral surge.

The district’s strong preference for in-person learning has been evident from the outset.

Quakertown is one of just three districts in Bucks County to offer some in-person instruction from the moment schools opened this fall. The elementary schools shifted from hybrid to full in-person first — with an all-virtual option for families that wanted it. The middle and high schools followed.

“I believe the majority of the families in the region do want their kids back full-time,” said Chris Spear, a Quakertown school board member. “That’s how I explain my role in this. I’m the community’s voice. I’m the one that’s accountable to the community.”

So why does this particular community want in-person schools when others howl for the opposite?

Some point to politics. The area leans conservative and conservatives, generally speaking, favor in-person learning more than liberals.

Others say it’s more complicated than pure partisanship. They point to parents who struggle with child care. They reference the fact that Upper Bucks County — which is less densely populated than areas closer to Philadelphia — has lower case counts than other parts of the region.

“It’s hard to know the right answer,” said Jon Sell, a father of three in the district and local business owner. “[But] we can’t just sort of stay on the sideline and be locked in fear.”

Bucks County has “substantial” COVID-19 spread, according to the state. The Department of Education suggests that schools in counties with substantial transmission go all virtual. More recently, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia recommended that all secondary schools in the region stay online through the end of the calendar year.

But expert opinions are hardly unanimous. Many European countries have kept schools open through the fall spike and several leading epidemiologists have urged American school districts to do the same, if possible. Among them is Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recently told Yahoo News that the “default” position of officials should be to keep schools open.

School board member Chris Spear said he’s seen no evidence that his district’s decision to reopen school has further endangered the community.

“Right now you’re safer inside our building than you are in Walmart,” Spear said.

Unlike neighboring Montgomery County, Bucks County health officials have not asked schools to close. Dr. David Damsker, director of the county’s health department, told Keystone Crossroads that there’s been “no confirmed spread” in any of the county’s schools.

“That doesn’t mean it won’t happen here or there, or that schools are unsafe if it does,” Damsker wrote in an email. “But we don’t have any evidence at this time.”

For parents, like Spear, who support reopening, the real risk is remaining online. He said he heard too often about students who struggled during hybrid learning because they didn’t have parents at home to guide them through virtual classes.

“There are a lot of families that are suffering right now,” Spear said.