With opposing opinions scrolled across hand-lettered signs, demonstrators took to opposite ends of Doylestwn Saturday, just a few blocks and a farmers’ market between them.
At issue in the small community – the best way to open Central Bucks schools next month.
On one end of town, students, parents and a handful of teachers lined the sidewalk in front of CB West High School, their signs supporting educators and chalk-written messages on the pavement expressing love and kindness. Cars passed by, honking their horns and offering “thumbs-up.”
A different scene emerged at the other end of the borough, as adults and children filled the corner of Broad and Court streets, chanting “open our schools,” and “kids first.” There too, drivers passed by, blaring their horns in a show of solidarity.
The two simultaneous rallies made clear a stark division that’s aligning those who want to see the district’s students and staff return to indoor classes against those who see a virtual start to the school year as the safest option.
“Parents are being very unnecessarily angry at teachers, when they can’t control what’s going on,” said 16-year-old Alexis Albright, as she stood in front of the Court Street high school.
“Teachers have it really tough right now … trying to figure out the curriculum when things keep changing, “ said Sarah Zhang, 17, a senior at Central Bucks East High School. “We want to show teachers we still made the right choice,” she added.
Central Bucks’ choices have changed suddenly – twice – in recent weeks.
District officials first said they would be offering families the choice of a hybrid schedule or an all-virtual one, with no option for a five-day, in-school program, based on the state’s safety recommendations. Then, in an 11th-hour move that surprised many, a full in-person alternative was added.
After asking parents which plan they preferred, Central Bucks superintendent John Kopicki announced that, given the number of those wanting the full, in-person schedule, there was insufficient staff to do that safely.
“It became quickly apparent that we do not have adequate staff to safely open schools,” he wrote in an email to parents.
Then, on Aug. 10, the district abruptly said the start of the school year would be entirely remote, setting off a firestorm of criticism on social media.
For those demanding Saturday that schools hold in-person classes, the issue, they said, centered on the children and the district’s about-face.
“I’m not concerned about the pandemic,” said Lisa Feldman, who said she has a grandson in the district. “We had a choice of going two or three days (in-person) and they took it back,” she said, adding, “Teachers are essential workers.” Feldman’s daughter, Lauren Feldman, helped organize the demonstration.
Bruce Bramer shouted through a megaphone, leading protesters in chants of, “Reopen our schools” and “Teachers need to teach.”
The Warminster man said he has a student in the Central Bucks district and shares concern about the (COVID-19) virus, “but, they had a plan” to reopen in-person “and they should.”
Jennifer Girard, Bramer’s fiancé said, she has taken her third-grader out of public school and enrolled her in Catholic school due to the changes at Central Bucks.
“I would prefer her to be in CB, it’s a good district, said Girard, “but, she’s depressed and gaining weight, she needs to be in school with other kids.”
And, Girard added, “if a teenager can work at Wegman’s with a mask, a teacher can go to work with a mask on.”
Teacher Karen Mudry took in the scene in front of CB West with her wife, Lizanne Meeks, a teacher in the Centennial School District, where the school year is beginning virtually.
“It’s sad that teachers are taking all the blame in the eyes of Facebook,” said Mudry. “We’re a very responsible group of people.”
Another CB teacher, Andrea Rayner, expressed sorrow too. “It feels sad,” she said, standing with her three children, carrying signs of teacher support.
“Teachers are being blamed for virtual learning and we want to teach as safely as we can. Safe doesn’t have to be virtual, but we want it to be the safest way possible.” All Central Bucks teachers, said Rayner, are expected to hold their remote classes from their classrooms.
The borough’s mayor, Ron Strouse, walked through the gathering, and noted that the school board’s decision was driven by healthcare and safety. “Going forward,” he said, “a major factor will be ensuring the virtual environment is fair to everyone.” He cited concern for English-as-second language students, those with little or no internet access and others with educational challenges.
The dueling demonstrations led educator Meeks to ponder why the school issue, like many others, has people so polarized.
“We’re divided on every topic, we’ve lost our sense of community. It’s just not healthy,” she said. “We’ve lost our compassion and our ability to come together and talk.”
However, Mudry added, “what we’re witnessing here, what’s being organized by the students is setting an example for adults.”