Broughal Middle School, part of the Bethlehem Area School District, will take part in a hybrid approach to learning this school year. District schools closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Andrew Garrison/B&W Staff)

Bethlehem schools prepare for hybrid learning

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The Bethlehem Area School District is planning on having all schools, K-12, open up with hybrid learning in the fall. 

Schools had to find a happy medium between facilitating the best and safest learning environment possible.

“The magic of being a middle school principal is that the kids are amazing, the faculty is amazing and getting them in the same place usually generates amazing results,” said Peter Mayes, principal of Nitschmann Middle School. “It shows you how important the in-person situation is for everybody’s progress.”

Mayes said the bulk of Nitschmann students will be following a remote and face-to-face model. On Mondays, Bethlehem’s students will be conducting learning activities at home while their teachers prepare for the week. Students whose last names begin with letters A-L will come in for classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while students whose last names begin with letters M-Z will come in on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Select students will be involved in the district’s cyber program, which entails full-time online learning. An even smaller group of students will be participating in small-group Zoom sessions with their teachers to supplement their normal load, Mayes said.

This decision is subject to change as they approach the school year and will be closely monitored for re-evaluation. Mayes said the district came to this decision by taking science and the advice of the medical community, especially from the health department at St. Luke’s hospital, into consideration.

Nitschmann staff have come up with a comprehensive plan to increase sanitation, help with contact tracing and abide by social distancing guidelines, which include having students clean their desks every class, implementing an electronic hall pass system, expanding cafeteria seating outdoors, requiring masks and spreading students apart during arrival and dismissal.

Mayes said they haven’t had to cancel any of their programs but have made a few changes. Athletics have been pushed back until mid-September statewide, but the school’s start-of-the-year band camp has been moved online due to concerns over students congregating closely together.

Liberty High School principal Harrison Bailey said nothing has been definitively canceled yet, but the school board continues to be in conversations about the district’s many programs and is considering every possible scenario. 

Bailey said, even with the many unknowns and changes resulting from the pandemic, his expectations for the school have remained the same throughout his career.

“My expectations are that our staff is doing everything they can to provide the best education regardless of what the scenario looks like,” Bailey said. “Our students are working as hard as they can to learn and become productive and think and challenge thought, and administratively we’re doing everything to support everyone who needs to get that education.”

One of the most important things schools will be emphasizing is constant student support and engagement. 

Mayes said it is important students and teachers don’t treat at-home days as “off-days,” but instead make sure teachers are constantly checking in with their students in regards to their academics and their mental and physical health.

Bailey said their administration and teachers have to find a way to match their empathy with some rigor, holding their students accountable for their work.

Melisa Okumus, a student at Nitschmann, said getting the best learning experience from home is a concern shared by students.

“Learning online is hard to do without a school environment,” Okumus said. “The days I’m going to be online I’m going to have to try and be productive. I can’t just sit down; I actually have to be attentive. I’m going to have to try to pay attention a lot more.”

Virtual teaching has revealed to teachers and administrators areas of improvement they had never seen before. One example is using Zoom for Parent-teacher association  meetings, which Bailey said has allowed for greater participation from families.

Joseph Garin, a teacher at Liberty High School, said the best learning happens in a synchronous in-person format and that his focus is on optimizing personal interactions with his students in a safe way.

“When I’m teaching, I’m not just speaking verbatim rollout, I need the murmurs in the classroom, to ask questions and receive them,” Garin said. “That promotes further discourse. That’s what scares me the most, that that would be missing. I really think we need that interpersonal interaction, that eye-to-eye interaction. We’re social beings.”

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