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‘Virtual Academy' in Lower Merion Stokes Fears of Losing ‘Best of Best' Status

One of the Philadelphia region's most prestigious public school systems is dealing with parent pushback to its initial all-virtual plan, emblematic of struggles districts are facing in an ever-changing COVID-19 landscape.

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What to Know

  • School officials in Lower Merion, which is one of the most expensive districts in Pennsylvania, have proposed an all-virtual option that uses a Montgomery County agency to teach students.
  • Parents described the decision as "the lazy choice" and called the program "not up to the Lower Merion standard."
  • The district has not yet released its plans for a September reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but an official says in-school learning is currently part of the working proposal.

Stacy Bronte and her daughter, a soon-to-be junior at Lower Merion High School, took their virtual learning seriously after schools closed abruptly in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

She remembers working on chemistry assignments with her daughter.

"That's not an easy course to do at home. We were trying to do experiments in our house with the little supplies we had," Bronte said. "We were essentially saying let’s get through this year."

Now, months later and still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents in one of Pennsylvania's most expensive school districts are fearful of losing their status as standard-bearers in public education.

They say the district wants to send children who opt out of in-school learning in September to a "virtual academy" run by Montgomery County.

"They chose [a program] they’ve been using for their summer courses, which has a one-star rating," Bronte said. "We’re supposed to be the best of the best. We should exceed the standards not just meet them."

About 1,000 parents have signed a petition in opposition to the virtual academy. Some parents are planning a protest Thursday afternoon outside the district's administration building.

Another parent, Lisa Maslow, said her family has firsthand experience with the county virtual learning program. Her oldest son, Luke, who will be an eighth grader this year, tried taking a math course online through the county program this summer to stay ahead, but it was such a disappointment that she took him out of the class.

"The problem I have with the VA is it’s not up to the Lower Merion standard," Maslow said. "There was zero communication with the online teacher. She did not respond. It was watching slides all day and then take a quiz. It was a terrible, terrible program." 

A district spokeswoman said the virtual academy, which would be taught through the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, would allow for Lower Merion teachers to develop a hybrid curriculum for those students who are able to return to school.

"The virtual option is for students outside the brick-and-mortar system," the district spokeswoman, Amy Buckman, said.

She added that the district's plans for the hybrid model of education in the next school year has not been finalized. Superintendent Robert Copeland was not available for comment.

"We understand that parents want certainty," Buckman said. "But you saw what happened in Philadelphia. They put forth a plan and had to pull it back. The situation on July 27 and the situation on Sept. 8 could be radically different."

Some districts have already proposed a hybrid model of in-class instruction and virtual learning. Other districts have conceded that school will be closed come September and an all-virtual model will be offered.

Many districts are still weighing their options, and the wait is beginning to cause alarm.

Lower Merion's schools have about 8,700 students, according to the president of the Lower Merion Education Association, the union that represents the district's 1,500 teachers and support staff.

Bronte said the virtual academy option is a cop-out by the district, and parents are not going to accept it. The district is annually ranked among the top five in Pennsylvania in per pupil spending.

"They picked the lazy choice," she said.

Bronte said parents are also concerned that teachers will not have enough time to prepare for the start of school because the district has yet to finalize its reopening plans.

Lower Merion Education Association President Aimee Avellino said she is confident teachers and staff will meet the challenge of reopening no matter what the plan is.

But, she said, "there is a lot of fear and anxiety and worry for their own personal safety" among her members.

"The district and staff has been dedicated to being ready for any challenges that we face," Avellino said. "We have an excellent staff with a long track record of innovation and success, and I have no doubt whatever the circumstances are, we’ll be ready to teach."

Avellino said her union has been included in the planning for reopening throughout the summer and that teachers had professional development days in June and more are scheduled.

"There are a lot of moving parts to this. Things have been changing from week to week," she said. "I’m confident that the board and administration are working very hard right now to make a decision and that it’s going to come very soon."

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