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Palmerton families protest board's decision on classes, sports

Palmerton parents say that their school board’s decision to cancel in-person classes and winter sports for two months is unjustified, and will have negative effects on their children’s academics and well-being.

With in-person classes and winter sports on hold now through at least late January, families rallied in the borough park Saturday afternoon to get board members to change their minds.

“We think that our kids deserve more. They deserve to be in school, they deserve winter sports, they really need it as an outlet and it’s just unfair that we’re the only school in the league not participating,” said Nicole Lombardi, a wrestling parent.

The school board voted on Tuesday to take classes fully online, starting at Thanksgiving, following recommendations from the Department of Health. They also agreed to postpone winter sports until in-person classes continue.

There is no definite date for the return of classes or sports.

Students will only return if Carbon County meets the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s criteria for ‘moderate’ spread instead of ‘substantial’ for three out of four weeks, beginning with the week ending Jan. 8.

The Department of Education recommends that schools in counties with substantial spread go full online. Carbon has been in substantial spread the last 3 weeks.

Parents said they feel safe with their children in school. Some pointed to the low mortality rate among people under 19 years old. Others said that they like the precautions being taken in school buildings.

Palmerton has had five cases this year. The protesters said that shows the virus is not being spread among students.

“The CDC says school is the safest place for the kids. Let’s get them in school,” said Jill Whitney. “These kids want to be in school.”

Protesting parents said that the school board isn’t representing their constituents wishes when it comes to in-person classes. All but one board member voted in favor of the plan to go online.

“I’m kind of saddened that we have to keep fighting the fight against the school board that’s supposed to be working for us,” said Stacy Connell, who organized the event.

Online schooling has been difficult for many students. Multiple parents shared stories about students who did well in school having their grades decline when the school went full virtual in the spring.

“Our kids do better in school because they listen to their teachers and they respect their teachers. That is where they learn lifelong lessons in school,” said Dan Welsh.

Parents said that online learning also worsens the toll that the pandemic takes upon their kids’ well-being. Jim Nemeth said sports break up the monotony of the pandemic and provide a way for them to feel normal again.

“They need a release, to do something, to be together, and just to be kids,” he said.

Prior to the board’s decision, teams were already doing open gym workouts out to get ready for the season. Student athletes said that their teams were taking precautions, with every athlete having their temperature taken before each workout. Masks and social distancing were enforced when not on the field or court.

That is on top of the social distancing, sanitizing and mask wearing taking place throughout the school day.

“When we were off the court we were all wearing masks, all keeping distance. The coach made sure of it," said Austyn White, a senior basketball player.

Parents held another rally in August in Palmerton Memorial Park when fall sports were in jeopardy. The school board ultimately approved a return to play plan which allowed fall sports to continue.

Nemeth said the students proved in the fall that they can play safely and limit the spread and winter athletes deserve the same opportunity.

The protesters said that they have two members who would be willing to change their vote if they get the opportunity.

If the school board doesn’t change their decision, some parents said they want to explore legal options to get students back in the classroom.

Student athletes said they just want the board to give them a chance to play.

“They didn’t let us have a chance. We didn’t have that many cases. All the other schools are staying open, we should have the same chance,” said Aidan Haupt.