The Shippensburg Area School Board was forced to table a decision on the district’s fall reopening plan Monday due to extreme technical difficulties, and a lack of community access to public comment.

In the first hour of a four-hour meeting, the board contemplated rescheduling because Vice President Charlie Suders could not gain access to the Zoom meeting due to the overloaded system, and the public could not weigh in on the proposed plan. More than 700 people were attempting to listen to the live-streamed meeting, both in Zoom and on YouTube. However, only 100 could gain access via Zoom where public comments could be addressed. Suders could not gain access to the Zoom platform and eventually listened in on Director Dwayne Burt’s cell phone until a spot opened up in Zoom. The district had to obtain a special Zoom license that permits up to 1,000 participants and rescheduled the public comment portion until 6 p.m. Wednesday, which was after press time.

The board ultimately decided to listen to Superintendent Dr. Chris Suppo’s presentation on the proposed plan, but tabled voting on the matter until public comments could be considered and all board members could be present through the entire meeting. Another article on the plan will be published in next week’s News-Chronicle.

Suppo outlined the options the district’s team has reviewed over the last several months.

“We will talk about a plan that involves traditional learning where students enter through our doors every day. That’s what we want. We want our students back in our schools. We also considered and took a look at hybrid options with both face-to-face and virtual options, and complete virtual options,” Suppo said Monday.

Suppo ultimately told the board he proposes the district begin the year on Aug. 31, which is 11 days after the initial reopening date on the calendar, and start the year on a completely virtual platform.

Suppo also discussed the district’s health and safety plan that involves extensive disinfecting of all school surfaces, face coverings, temperature screenings and social distancing.

“We can divide the students into two cohorts, an A Day and a B Day. Divide all students K-12, coordinate and attend on Monday, then B Day would attend on Tuesday, then on Wednesday, have an all-virtual day. Those are just some options. Some schools are looking at having cohort A attend school one week, and cohort B attend the following week, with virtual learning in between,” Suppo explained.

He noted you have to have the staff in place to spread classrooms across the district. “Staffing becomes a problem in the cohort model, but it does become unrealistic if you don’t have the staff available,” he said. 

He also suggested having all elementary students having face-to-face instruction, and secondary students on both an A-B alternating schedule and virtual learning.

“The health and safety of our staff and students is paramount,” Suppo added. “We will do what we can to provide mitigation, social distancing, hand cleaning, and reducing the number of students in the classroom. Logistical limitations are realities. Sometimes they sound like good ideas, they seem easy enough to implement, but as you peel back the layers, you realize they are much more complicated and complex.”

Before Suppo said he wanted the year to start on a virtual platform, he noted the fragility of the district’s system.

“If we look at students attending school, we have to consider that something could go wrong. What if a student develops COVID-19 and tests positive? Or a teacher, staff member gets sick and was in contact with fellow staff members or students? At any one point in time, if we have several teachers or cafeteria workers who can’t work, or who have tested positive, that upsets the whole system. That is a serious consideration with the traditional or hybrid model. One case can change your entire outlook or day.”

Suppo noted the virtual instruction would be more hands-on and rigorous than it was in the spring, and the district would be working to provide devices for all students to help them stay on track with at-home learning.

President Mark Buterbaugh asked Suppo to state his recommendation in its entirety, and noted the administration needs to identify a marker for when they want to move forward with a different model. Suppo said they would reevaluate the situation at the end of September.

“I, along with every educator in our school district, and every board member and every parent wants our students to be in school. That’s where they learn the best, that’s where they are the safest. Whatever we choose, we will look to continue those services as much as we can. I want students in school. Everyone wants students in school. But, we have major concerns with the health and safety of our students and staff, and the fragility of our system. It won’t take much to upset that entire system. Under those conditions, I believe a virtual start is the most prudent, safest thing to do to start,” Suppo said.

Buterbaugh said he would allow board comments Monday, but would not permit a vote until the public had a chance to speak about their district.

“I’m very concerned about not starting out in school. I can’t predict or you can’t predict how long these students are in school, but at least if they are in school for a period of time, they can develop a personal relationship with their teacher and classmates so that can help virtual learning to go more smoothly.”

Buterbaugh also asked what the trigger would be for the district that would send it back to a virtual platform. “Is it one positive case? Ten positive cases? You need to identify that trigger.”

“I get concerned that the virtual platform is not the best avenue to teach those children in elementary school. I don’t want to lose some students at the elementary level,” Buterbaugh added.

The board commented on the plan for the next two hours. Please note this article has been split, and the remaining comments from the board and the public will be published in next Thursday’s News-Chronicle.


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