After beginning the school year on Aug. 30, the 22 Bethlehem Area School District schools have active COVID-19 cases as they transition back to fully in-person instruction.
BASD is the sixth-largest school district in the state, Superintendent Joseph J. Roy said.
The district has 16 elementary schools, four middle schools and two high schools.
Roy said having multiple small elementary schools works well because it builds a neighborhood-based feeling of community.
He said while the goal is to have students return to in-person instruction five days a week, there have been instances of high COVID-19 case counts that have halted in-person instruction.
According to the CDC, children under 12 are not yet eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, which may contribute to a high number of cases seen within the school district.
Within the first 12 days of school, BASD saw 150 students test positive as well as additional faculty members, Roy said.
BASD reports COVID-19 cases on a public dashboard. For the week of Sept. 25 there are currently 12 cases among the elementary schools, five among the middle schools and six among the high schools.
Remote learning took place at Miller Heights Elementary School during the week of Sept. 13 to keep kids safe, due to an outbreak of 16 to 17 cases in the school, Roy said.
Roy said the threat of the Delta variant is worse than originally anticipated.
He said the district currently faces the most cases to date on a daily to weekly basis — even more than last year.
“We are really getting slammed with cases right now,” Roy said. “It’s been a really rough start (to the year) in that way.”
Roy said parents’ jobs are also negatively impacted by rising cases because they need to monitor their children if they are sick or contact traced.
Despite the circumstances, schools are prepared with a multitude of resources and experience from last year’s operations. Students already have familiarity with the online site, Schoology, that they utilized for communicating with teachers about homework assignments, Roy said.
Roy said the return to school has improved children’s social and emotional development as well as mental well-being.
The district has partnered with St. Luke’s, the Lehigh Valley Health Network and other mental health nonprofits in the area to provide mental health services. Roy said he’s proud of the work he’s done over the last few years to bring important health services to the school district.
William Penn Elementary School
Amy Thompson, president of the parent teacher organization at William Penn Elementary School, said she admires the entire school community for their selfless attitude towards the 2021 school year.
For the past two years, no one was allowed to volunteer, organize the book fair, or help at school-wide assemblies at William Penn.
Thomspon said the school is relearning how much connection and community matters.
“I think in the past, it was all about, ‘We have to do this event, we have to plan this event, and we have to fundraise and plan this,’ that it was almost to the point that we were forgetting the human connection,” she said.
Thompson said everyone is grateful that students have returned to in-person learning.
Liz Triola, a first-grade teacher at William Penn, said she is grateful for the close relationships among faculty members. She appreciates the support for teachers amidst the pandemic, as well as the return to the classroom.
“We have a great support system, whether it’s from our principal (or) other teachers,” Triola said. “Everyone manages to stay really positive.”
Triola said there’s been heightened emotions of first graders returning to in-person schooling, which is uncommon for this age group in the past. Despite the challenges of making up lost time for development during COVID-19, Triola is confident that things will improve for staff and students.
Triola said her role is rewarding and she never dreads coming into her classroom.
“I look forward to who I work with, I look forward to the class,” she said. “I just know that it’s going to be a challenge, and they’re going to get through it— they’re going to be okay.”
Broughal Middle School
Broughal Middle School Principal Brandon Horlick said it’s meaningful for his students to be back in school with their peers and teachers again.
Horlick said Broughal’s faculty are emphasizing relationship-building over the first month of the 2020-2021 school year.
The school is divided into two teams per grade level, where much of the relationship-building occurs through participation in games, student and teacher recognitions and celebrations throughout the year.
Horlick said the school recognizes that relationships facilitate learning and engagement with new lesson topics. Homeroom teachers lead different activities for students during first period classes, including icebreakers, conducting interest surveys, assessing areas of need or just connecting with students through conversation.
Horlick said Broughal has trauma-informed trained teachers, two assistant principals, two guidance counselors, a community in-school counselor, a community schools coordinator and an after-school activities coordinator.
The Lehigh Homework Club, which runs through the Community Service Office, is a resource for students at Broughal Middle School.
Liberty High School
Liberty High School Principal Harrison Bailey said high schoolers are happy to be back with their classmates and to have the ability to fulfill their traditions. The school is currently planning an outdoor homecoming dance that abides by the 50 percent capacity rule for pep rallies.
He said high school students who still prefer virtual learning must apply to sign up for the district’s Cyber Program to access online courses.
Bailey said student’s experiences at Liberty have long prepared them to “navigate any space,” even before the pandemic.
“They’re able to navigate the work world and college world,” he said.
Bailey said mental health services for high school students are accessible through the Wellness Center at Liberty High School, as well as Freedom High School.