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Lower Merion high schools go virtual as many students stay home

The move follows a petition by two of the district’s seniors calling for remote instruction, and waning attendance at some high schools.

Cars leave Lower Merion High School in Ardmore on Wednesday. Due to operational issues, students at both Harriton and Lower Merion high schools will return to fully virtual instruction from Dec. 14, through Jan. 8.
Cars leave Lower Merion High School in Ardmore on Wednesday. Due to operational issues, students at both Harriton and Lower Merion high schools will return to fully virtual instruction from Dec. 14, through Jan. 8.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

The Lower Merion School District will shift its high schools to virtual instruction Monday, citing “operational issues” amid low in-person attendance by students and staff.

The move, announced by the district Wednesday, comes as debate continues over whether schools should stay open while coronavirus cases mount — and in the wake of a petition by two of the district’s seniors calling for all-virtual high school instruction in light of the pandemic’s fall surge.

The petition — which garnered more than 2,200 signatures since its creation last weekend — said bringing high school students into classrooms placed families and “every teacher, faculty and transportation member at unnecessary risk for COVID-19.”

“I’m not seeing the need to spread this deadly virus when there’s a completely viable option” in virtual instruction, said Sloan Petersohn, a senior at Harriton High School, who started the petition with fellow Harriton senior Cristina Sniffen.

While experts have called for prioritizing in-person school even as the pandemic worsens, much of the focus has been on opening elementary schools. Online learning is a particular struggle for many younger children, who also appear to play less of a role transmitting the virus than adults or teenagers.

In some high schools offering in-person instruction, some students haven’t been showing up. At a school board meeting Monday, Lower Merion officials said only 50% of students at both its high schools who were slated to attend classes in person that day were present.

“A lot of people feel the same way we do” and are staying home, Sniffen said.

» READ MORE: As COVID-19 cases surge, should schools stay open? Around the Philly region, approaches vary wildly.

Lower Merion spokesperson Amy Buckman said the district “had given the high school students the option of participating from home between now and Winter Break and many were doing so.” That and staff absences contributed to the decision to shift the high schools to virtual, she said. Some students with special needs will still be permitted to attend in person.

The Montgomery County school district enrolls about 8,600, including 2,800 at Harriton and Lower Merion High School. The district’s six elementary and two middle schools are currently offering in-person instruction.

Teacher and staffing shortages have challenged a number of school districts, with officials reporting growing numbers of staff absent from buildings — in some cases quarantined after exposure to the virus.

Meanwhile, teachers who are going to school sometimes have few students in their classrooms.

In some of Petersohn’s classes, just one student has been physically present with the teacher. “They usually are like, ‘It’s me and him, we’re chilling, we’re having a great time,’” she said. But when attendance is that low, the student in the room has to get on Zoom, as the teacher simultaneously instructs student in-person and virtually.

Similar patterns are playing out in other communities. For one of Tricia Bader’s daughters, a senior at Radnor High School, “it’s depressing to go into school,” said Bader, who has another daughter who is a junior at the high school. “It’s not what they expected.”

When Radnor brought students back for hybrid instruction earlier this fall, Bader’s daughters were excited after being away from in-person school since March, Bader said. But as the fall wore on, she said, physical attendance has dropped off, and the socialization her daughters craved has been missing.

Radnor spokesperson Michael Petitti said the district is aware that some students in its hybrid in-person program are opting for virtual classes, “resulting in some smaller in-person classes. … We are investigating the factors that may be attributing to this practice.”

Bader, who said she doesn’t fault the district or teachers for the situation, thinks high schools should offer fully in-person or fully virtual options. If students were able to attend five days a week, Bader said, more would be there during the day.

Sniffen and Petersohn also objected to the hybrid model in Lower Merion, saying the schedule is draining. High school hybrid students participating virtually log in at 7:30 a.m. and finish at 2:40 p.m., with five-minute breaks in between their six classes, and half an hour for lunch. (Lower Merion’s fully virtual program, in contrast, has four classes a day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with half-hour breaks and an hour-long lunch.)

While enrolled in hybrid instruction, Petersohn has participated in classes virtually all fall — a decision made after family members became ill, she said. Sniffen last attended in-person school around Halloween.

» READ MORE: Schools with coronavirus cases could be forced to close on short notice under new Pa. rules

In their petition, the seniors said “at least two LMSD bus drivers have reportedly passed away due to the coronavirus,” while a support staff member has been on a ventilator.

Buckman said that one district bus driver died last month but that the family had not publicly disclosed the cause. She said she could not comment on health issues involving other staff.

Petersohn and Sniffen said teachers have appreciated the petition. “I’ve gotten at least a dozen emails saying thank you for doing this,” Sniffen said, adding that some teachers “do not feel comfortable speaking up.”