The Bethlehem Area School District is working to provide meal, disability and homework services to its students amidst the outbreak of COVID-19 and its impacts in the Lehigh Valley.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered Pennsylvania K-12 schools to remain closed until at least April 6 in response to the pandemic.
The Bethlehem Area School District includes Fountain Hill Elementary School, Broughal Middle School, and Liberty and Freedom High Schools.
Many students count on schools to provide them with meals, disability services and help with schoolwork to get through the week.
Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Dr. Joseph J. Roy, said the closure of schools is not ideal for any student.
During the initial two weeks, Bethlehem schools are providing free breakfast and lunch to all school aged children every weekday at eight different locations throughout the district, Roy said.
“Honestly, the meals part is the easiest to do because our dining services can do that,” Roy said. “We have a game plan for that and we’ve been doing it.”
Roy said the more challenging aspect of providing aid to students will be helping those who typically rely on disability services to manage their schoolwork. He said the district will have special education teachers available to be in touch virtually with students to offer support.
Charlotte Brown, ‘23, and Bonor Ayambem, ‘23, both volunteer through the Lehigh Community Service Office as tutors for afterschool homework help in the Bethlehem Area School District.
They said there has not been any dialogue yet about continuing to volunteer.
“Moving forward, they haven’t told us anything about tutoring through Zoom or anything like that,” Ayambem said.
Brown said she thinks it would be beneficial to continue working with Bethlehem students online during the at-home schooling, since the children enjoy working with Lehigh students and are able to gain social interaction through the tutoring.
Roy said he thought it would be a great idea to continue homework support online, whether it be from Lehigh students or other employees, to continue to guide students that need help.
“Honestly, part of me wants to help (the students), but the other part is thinking that technology-wise, I’m not sure if every kid has access to that at home and would be able to figure that out, because I think that’s part of why they’re at homework club,” Brown said.
Roy said he thinks continuing homework club would be hard to manage, since people are not all in the same place, but said that it’s possible.
Roy said the BASD is working with RCN, an internet provider company, to give 60 free days of internet to students that need it so they can continue their schoolwork online.
For students who do not have internet access at home, Roy said they will use the same eight locations where meals are being provided as places for students to pick up hard-copy packets of assignments.
One of the uncertainties that remains is the need for childcare. Many Bethlehem parents work during the day and are unable to take care of their children during weekdays. While the BASD usually provides childcare at their schools and in the summer, they said they will not be providing this service during the pandemic.
“Our childcare program was ordered to close when the schools were ordered to close,” Roy said. “At first we were going to keep it open, but we’ve been ordered to close it.”
Roy said he expects the issue of childcare will be a nationwide challenge for parents with essential jobs that don’t have the option of working from home.
Roy said the school district has a strong learning-from-home plan they intend to roll out if Pennsylvania schools remain closed indefinitely.