PMHS ‘reopening’ plan: An ineffective, deflating compromise

Tommy Roche

The new reopening model for Pelham Memorial High School is deeply flawed.

I have no doubt that significant time and effort went into creating this plan. However, that is not an excuse for the overly complicated, half-hybrid “reopening” model for PMHS that Superintendent Dr. Cheryl Champ introduced in Wednesday’s school board meeting. The four-cohort system provides little more than confusion, frustration and a reason for students to lose faith in the district’s approach.

First, the content of the new model. Rather than allow fully in-person instruction for high schoolers, PMHS will be split into four sub-cohorts for the remainder of the year so that roughly 70% of students will be in-person on any given school day. With this system, cohort A will be joined in-school by half of cohort B in the first half of the week (either sub-cohort B1 or sub-cohort B2, depending on the day), and cohort B will be joined in-school by half of cohort A in the second half of the week (either sub-cohort A1 or sub-cohort A2, depending on the day). Are you confused yet? Wait until you hear about what we do on Wednesdays.

Students, like parents and school administrators, need a consistent routine to stay active and aware during the day. The existing two-cohort system has caused confusion in the past, but I have grown relatively accustomed to it. Doubling these cohorts will lead to the doubling of fatigue; even ignoring the immense disappointment of having a chance at real school taken away before my graduation, the decision to further complicate hybrid learning will impact students’ ability to stay focused in class. After all, I am certain that it would be difficult for Champ to do her job if she had to confusingly alternate the days in which she enters her office for work. Requiring students to constantly check their schedules and switch their alarms every day for the last few months of school with a new hybrid system both fails to improve the learning experience at PMHS and disregards the mental health of the student body. 

Being at the intersection of three large municipalities, some Pelham residents feel that the opening of our schools has been as fast a process as it reasonably could. After all, New Rochelle High School was months behind us in their own hybrid plan and a majority of New York City high schoolers are attending school virtually. Comparing PMHS with schools in these cities is flawed, however, as they each have much larger populations than Pelham. When looking at nearby schools with similar-sized student populations to PMHS, the results are significantly different: Rye, Eastchester and Tuckahoe already have full time, in-person learning, Mount Vernon and Scarsdale will have FTIP instruction available by April 12 and April 19, respectively, while Yorktown, Ardsley and even cities like Yonkers and White Plains are evaluating new plans to introduce FTIP instruction for high schoolers before the end of the year. Pelham is falling behind.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are not stopping Pelham, either. These are recommendations, not requirements, and even then they are attainable with slight adjustments. Masks are already the standard for all indoor areas, three feet of space between students from nose-to-nose is viable in the majority of PMHS classrooms and the CDC does not even recommend the use of our bulky plastic barriers anymore. If exceptions for specific classrooms need to be made to fulfill the three-foot recommendation, then they can be addressed on a case-by-case basis. I would happily attend one or two of my classes from the library, gym or cafeteria if it means I can enjoy my last months of high school with my friends for the rest of the day. So long as these recommendations are met and the danger of Covid-19 is acknowledged, all evidence shows that there is no need to keep PMHS this divided.

I would happily attend one or two of my classes from the library, gym or cafeteria if it means I can enjoy my last months of high school with my friends for the rest of the day.”

The district’s new hybrid model could lead to more spread of Covid-19 among Pelham teens. The main cause of new infections between PMHS students is not the attendance of school with masks and dividers; rather, it is the prevalence of unsanctioned parties. As seen over the summer and at the beginning of school, even a privileged, educated community like Pelham has made some stupid mistakes in this respect. By regulating our contact with friends to a comical degree through this new plan, the district is causing many teens to lose faith in the school’s ability to make reasonable rules for students. When this public trust is damaged, it leads to doubt, ignorance, rule-breaking and further spread of Covid-19. Superspreading events among teens can be avoided by allowing students to instead socialize in a controlled, safe environment like a high school. Reopening PMHS with full-time, in-person instruction and preventing the confusion of a four-tiered hybrid system can both answer teenagers’ needs to socialize and improve their mental state. 

Responsible school openings—with the use of masks, sanitation and contact tracing—are medically advisable and may decrease students’ incentive to irresponsibly gather. We should not consider using a counterintuitive half-measure between hybrid and FTIP instruction as a compromise. At the very least, PMHS should allow select grades in for FTIP learning (Grades 9 and 12 were previously considered) and use partially virtual in-school classes (as described above) for space reasons if absolutely necessary. As we emerge from the pandemic with vaccines in our arms and masks in our pockets, making rules more reasonable for teenagers would help clear the path for Pelham’s revival. That starts with the rejection of the new hybrid system and the embrace of a more sensible reopening of Pelham Memorial High School.