OC officials hash out issues regarding online instruction

Contentious discussion at Monday’s Oil City School Board meeting about the level of instruction district students are receiving highlighted the complexities of providing online instruction during the state’s school shutdown.

“Everyone is sitting on their hands and making excuses for why we can’t educate students,” school board member Fred Weaver said. “We are denying students a quarter of their education when we could cover some. If a building is on fire and there are 100 people inside but you can only save 90, you save 90 and don’t let all 100 burn.”

Weaver went on to say that federal and state requirements and laws that kept the district from educating some students as opposed to none were “moronic.”

“(Betsy) DeVos, (Rachel) Levine, (Pedro) Rivera, they seem to think one size fits all. They don’t have a clue. They have never been to Venango County,” Weaver said.

DeVos is the U.S. education secretary, Levine is the Pennsylvania health secretary and Rivera is the Pennsylvania education secretary.

Board president Joe McFadden said “the district has tried and made a good faith effort to contact students. We are doing the best we can. The district is hindered by laws and regulations and lack of internet access and devices.”

Superintendent Lynda Weller said every district has different needs. The challenges facing Oil City are different because the number of students is larger than in some other area districts, she added.

“We are not as fortunate as some other areas with internet,” Weller said.

All agreed the teachers are doing the best they can under the circumstances and that face to face instruction is far superior to online instruction.

“We have teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn,” Weaver said. “It would be difficult to teach as well online as in the classroom.”

School board members Tyler Johnson and Jon Piercy, who both have children who are students in the district, said their children are still learning and commended the teachers for their work.

Students in kindergarten through 11th grade are doing enrichment and review, while seniors are receiving planned instruction, Weller said.

“No one was prepared for this,” Weller said about the COVID-19 pandemic. She noted the huge amount of change and adaption districts have had to make in a matter of weeks.

She said the district was using Google Classroom and Zoom meetings as well as giving out paper packets to students.

A good internet connection has also proved to be a significant obstacle to going to planned instruction in the district.

McFadden noted that out of the students who have internet probably half of them have such a poor connection they would be hampered in doing school online.

“We can’t get hotspots, they are back ordered,” Weller noted.

Weller said the district had signed out 147 devices to students from all five school buildings.

The district also applied for a Continuity of Education and Equity grant to cover part of the cost of ordering 303 iPads and chromebooks so every student in the district who needed one has one, Weller said.

She added that the grant funding was supposed to be awarded Friday but “We don’t know if we got it yet. The demand far exceeded what they had, so stay tuned.”

Several board members noted there will be a learning gap to make up next year.

On the flip side, Weller said the district doesn’t want the students just “jumping through hoops” to say they are doing something educational.

“We are missing kids. We don’t know where they are. They or their parents are not answering the phone when teachers call,” Weller said.

Out of the 579 students at the high school, 137 weren’t able to be contacted as of Monday afternoon, Weller said. And out of the 606 students at the middle school, 162 remained unsuccessfully contacted as of Monday, Weller added.

Teachers have repeatedly tried to contact these students, according to Weller.

“We are having a much higher success rate contacting the parents of elementary students, ” Weller said. She attributed this to the good communication system in place between parents and teachers at the elementary school before the pandemic.

Weller added that the district is giving out 400 to 440 breakfasts and lunches a day, on average. That works out to be about 25% of students in the district, she said.

Meals for multiple days have been distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays since the statewide school shutdown, Weller said.

Weller said commencement is still scheduled for June 5 but could be postponed if that means a traditional commencement can still be held at a later date. If that is not possible, Weller said the district will come up with something creative to honor the seniors.

The prom has also been postponed and not canceled at this point, Weller said.

All the school board members attended the meeting either in person or virtually.

The board decided to combine its two May meetings into one meeting on May 18. The work session will be at 6 p.m. and the voting meeting will be at 7 p.m.