NORRISTOWN – To mark the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 classroom lockdown, local parents gathered outside Norristown High School Friday and reminded the community of the high price their children have paid.

“So much has changed for the worse for our children,” said Norristown parent and school board candidate Lisa Licwinko-Engleman, who spoke at the event, along with parents from a local grassroots group that has evolved into a statewide political action committee, called Keeping Kids in School. Harrisburg Families United also met on the steps of the state capitol for the same cause – to get schools back open, full time.

“We know our children are suffering from this,” said Licwinko-Engleman. “It goes without saying that they are not learning as much as they would be in a classroom, but they are depressed, they are anxious, and with the older high school students, they are worried about their futures.

Clarice Schillinger, founder of the Keeping Kids in School PAC, addresses a press conference outside Norristown Area High School. A companion event was organized at the state capitol by Harrisburg Families United. (CREDIT: Mary McKenzie.)

Clarice Schillinger, a Hatboro-Horsham School district parent and driving force behind Parents for In Person Education and the resulting Keeping Kids in School PAC, said that the bipartisan group has a simple purpose.

“We want kids back in school, a full return to school, five days a week,” she said. “People say to ‘follow the science’ and we are following the science. Science shows that school is not where the virus is being spread. We hope school administrators listen to us and follow the science too.”

Schillinger said that with so much taxpayer money being set aside for schools across the state to reopen safely “there are zero reasons that schools remain closed.”

Keeping Kids in School has been fighting back against the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), which the organization says has been a barrier to the district’s decision to reopen. The group blames the PSEA for Central Bucks School District’s reversal on returning to classroom instruction last summer, citing emails from union officials as the impetus for the change.

Central Bucks School District didn’t reopen for full-time, in-person learning until February, with the option for parents to keep their students as remote learners.

“We ask the union to stop strong-arming school districts into closures and stop moving the goalpost for return,” Schillinger said at the event.

Licwinko-Engleman and fellow school board candidate Tamika Mezache, want to see full-time, in-person learning for all kids in Norristown. The two women, both parents to students in the district, have seen the impact school closures have on kids.

For Licwinko-Engleman, this is a personal battle. She had to send one of her children to live with a relative in another district so he could receive daily in-class instruction. “The simple fact is, kids can be school and be safe. This is such an unnecessary hardship. In my case, my son needs the day-to-day interaction and support of the classroom, and the sad fact is, I had to send him to live with his grandmother so he could get it. We shouldn’t be making decisions like this.”

Licwinko-Engleman also raised concerns about the Norristown High School serving as a vaccination site, noting it’s not in a central location for Norristown residents or easily accessible via public transit. Currently the school district is in all-remote learning but athletics programs restarted earlier this week and a hybrid learning model- or a combination of in-person and at-home learning staggered out to control class sizes – is slated to begin April 5.

“The simple fact is, this building behind us should be full of children learning,” she said. “I do not understand why a building that is so out of the way for many in the town, would be selected for a vaccine site. I am concerned that with many of our families, where English is a second language, this building was selected simply because leaders figured the parents wouldn’t put up a fight.”

Since athletic activities have returned to the high school, Licwinko-Engleman said, she wants the county “to find a different site. There could be pedophiles, criminals, we don’t know. This area should be kept safe.”