Fourth-grade teacher Eric Frank starts the day with his students at William Penn Elementary School in Bethlehem, Pa. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — While much of the country grapples with getting kids back in school buildings, this small city and onetime steel giant snug in the Lehigh Valley has had buses running and classrooms open for more than 10 weeks.

It has not so far had a coronavirus outbreak in its schools.

But it’s been daunting. Teachers carry a big load. Even with safeguards in place, individual coronavirus cases are nearly inevitable. Contact tracing and quarantining have been critical — as have posting information about schools affected and keeping the trust of anxious parents.

With one marking period complete, school has become a pandemic-minded world where caution is melded with the comfort of the familiar. There is the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, math and reading, lunch in the cafeteria, breaks outside for recess. But fewer than 40 percent of students are on campus at once. They keep to new rules.

“It has gone better than we expected,” Schools Superintendent Joseph J. Roy said as he eyed the latest trend data in October. “Now we know we’re not superspreaders. We have 22 schools. We’re this far into it. We have no evidence that a case spread and created another case in a school.”

But coronavirus cases are surging across the country and in his region, adding complexity to what lies ahead. Nationally, some school systems have retreated from plans for in-person learning. The daily count of coronavirus cases in the United States topped 100,000 for the first time last week and soared on Wednesday to more than 145,000, a record.

The Bethlehem school system is staying the course for as long as local health leaders say it’s okay, Roy said this week. Still, “it’s going rapidly in the wrong direction,” he added worriedly.

Bethlehem is part of an early wave of school districts nationally that rely at least partly on in-person instruction. Its approach is a hybrid, with days that alternate between on-campus and online learning so that fewer students crowd together at any one time.

Now, as an increasing number of districts strategize about bringing students back, the experience of the Pennsylvania system 70 miles north of Philadelphia points to what may be ahead for others.

The school system developed its plan with the help of the city health bureau and a local health-care network, a partnership that leaders say was key. It followed advice from the state and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with research from Johns Hopkins and Harvard.

Families may choose 100 percent virtual instruction if they prefer. But three-quarters of Bethlehem’s students have returned to school, which they attend two days a week under a schedule that blends in three days of online learning.

For some, it has been a chance for children to end the stifling isolation of the pandemic.

“It’s about being there with adults and other kids and out of the bubble with just our family,” said Amy Thompson, secretary of the parent-teacher organization at William Penn Elementary, who said her third-grade daughter is thrilled at even a part-time return.

Nineteen of Bethlehem’s 22 schools have had at least one coronavirus case recorded since opening Aug. 31. Among people testing positive are 35 students who do in-person learning some days and 14 who learn all online and do not go to campus. Of 25 positive employees, 19 are educators, coaches or custodians.

There is no evidence of “spread” in a school, said Kristen Wenrich, the city’s health director. Cases have been largely linked to family members or activities outside school. They ticked up after Labor Day, much of the spread related to the college-age population, Wenrich said. But recently more ­middle-aged people have been affected, probably because of pandemic fatigue and laxness with precautions, she added.

Back to school: Many large districts are opening doors again

Nationally, experts say there is evidence that schools can operate safely in person if community transmission levels are reasonable and robust safeguards are in place. Without that, “we should expect that the virus can spread in schools the same as it would anywhere else,” said Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who said districts that succeed have “important lessons to share.”

Meagan Fitzpatrick, an ­infectious-disease transmission modeler at the University of ­Maryland School of Medicine, pointed out that Bethlehem opened schools when the area’s incidence rate was far lower, with less chance that an infected person would go to school.

“They have a much greater challenge now,” she said. “This is really the test for them of how well their in-school measures are dampening transmission.”

At Penn Elementary, classes stay together for recess and lunch. Long rectangular lunch tables seat two or three children so that no one gets too close when masks are off for eating. Hallways are marked with arrows to keep everyone moving in one direction. Crayons are not shared. Hand sanitizer is abundant.

With fewer students in the building and voices muffled by masks, the sound of school is not the same. It is quieter. “There are some days when I say, ‘Where is everyone?’ ” said Joseph Anthes, the school’s principal.

Educators say one thing that became clear right away is that mask-wearing — which is required — is not the problem that many expected.

“Every once in a while, a nose will come popping out,” said Ashley Schellhaas, a teacher for 15 years. When she makes eye contact and points to her nose, the child quickly covers up, she said.

“I feel the kids really grasp the gravity of the situation,” she said. “They understand why.”

Checking the 'dashboard' every morning'

Gen Marcon learned that her school system was moving toward in-person learning over the summer. She listened closely to videos the superintendent posted that described how it would work. She read messages that were sent home.

She concluded that the reduced class sizes would allow for enough social distancing to be safe, especially given masks and other safeguards. “We balanced concerns about safety with needs for socialization and other parts of school,” she said.

But that didn’t mean she wasn’t worried.

Every morning, as she sips her coffee, Marcon sits in front of her home-office computer and clicks on a “dashboard” of school-related coronavirus cases. Her three children attend Calypso Elementary, not far from the Lehigh River.

“I look at it and think, ‘Okay, we’re still doing a good job in the district, it’s still under control,’ ” she said. “It gives me peace of mind, and it kind of quashes any buzz that may be going around.”

She wishes there were no cases in Bethlehem schools but — eight months after the pandemic was declared — she knows that’s not the reality of 2020.

“I hope we can keep this up as long as possible,” she said.

In Bethlehem, students attend either Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday and Thursday, a split designed to minimize the number of consecutive days without in-
person learning. On Mondays, there are check-ins and Zoom meetings, along with teacher collaboration and planning time. Fewer students ride the bus than once did.

Marcon says the days on campus help her children stay on track when they are home. “The structure from school is kind of carrying over to the online days,” she explained.

Roy, the 58-year-old superintendent, once envisioned a five-day in-person school week for kindergarten through fifth grade, with a hybrid setup for older students. That idea changed amid an increasing focus on six feet of social distancing.

Bringing students back is something of a giant math problem that starts with state and federal guidance and must factor in building space, enrollment, teacher numbers, family choices and bus transportation. All of that and coronavirus numbers.

Months later, Roy’s mornings start with spreadsheets of data on school cases and test results. “I’m obsessed with it,” he said. “I try not to check it constantly, but this is what we live by.”

Cases for the most recent 14 days are posted on the school system’s coronavirus dashboard.

“The transparency piece is huge,” Roy said. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re hiding anything. If they do, they’re not going to go to school. We have to keep people safe, and we have to keep up the confidence of the community.”

State figures show a 6.5 percent test positivity rate in Northampton County, where much of Bethlehem is located — a level that is considered “moderate” by the state and the CDC. But another key number — new cases per 100,000 population for a seven-day period — is 137.8, which the state pegs as “substantial” community transmission. The number falls into a category the CDC describes as “highest risk” for transmission in schools.

At that level, the state guidance suggests all-virtual learning, but Roy said the decision rests with local systems, and he and health leaders have agreed to keep going since there is no sign of spread inside a school. Roy posted a video explaining his thinking. “Our mitigation works — social distancing, the hybrid model, wearing masks, hand hygiene,” he said.

Some experts say broader testing is also a good idea after any type of school-associated case, noting that some people are asymptomatic or show mild symptoms that could be overlooked.

Since school’s opening, more than 300 educators and support staff have had to quarantine or be tested, usually after a potential close contact outside school. But the health-care provider that partnered with the school system — St. Luke’s University Health Network — prioritizes tests for students and staff, with results in 48 hours, school and health officials said. As infections rise, the turnaround might be longer, Roy said.

Not everyone was of the same mind about going back inside schools. Angela Sinkler, a school board member who is a nurse, voted against it. She says that while the plan was thoughtful and benefited from the partnership with health experts, she would not have sent her child to school. “I felt the risks outweighed the benefits,” Sinkler said.

She added: “I hope my fears are proved wrong, but I’m worried for the winter and the holidays.”

Bethlehem does not take students’ temperatures as they arrive — a practice of some schools — which officials say would be hard to manage and of limited value because many people are asymptomatic. Families are asked to screen students for fever, cough and other symptoms.

The district says it has ramped up fresh-air ventilation, doubling the air pulled into the building so that it turns over in each room roughly every 10 minutes.

For Roy, big issues ahead include teaching and learning loss.

The district educates 13,600 students, making it the sixth largest of Pennsylvania’s 500 school systems. It is 43 percent Hispanic, 41 percent White, 11 percent Black, 2 percent Asian and just under 3 percent multiracial. About 60 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

With the hybrid setup producing small class sizes — roughly six to 12 students — teachers are accomplishing a lot and really getting to know what students need when they are in the classroom, Roy said.

“My anxiety is the heavy load on teachers,” he said. “How far can you run on the adrenaline of ‘We got this?’ ”

Laura Keding, president of the Bethlehem Education Association, the teachers union, said the school system’s close work with the city health officials and St. Luke’s in developing its plan helped boost confidence in returning to campuses.

“There was definitely an evolution,” she said. For the early weeks, the consensus was the plan was “allowing us to work safely.” More recently, with cases on the rise, more teachers are concerned about being notified of potential exposures, she said. “Teachers want to provide for their students and their education, but they’re also worried for their own health and safety,” she said.

Many teachers are tired and overwhelmed, even as they are glad to see their students.

“There are questions about the sustainability of the pace we’re working at,” Keding said. “As the months go on, will we find the balance or are we going to break?”

Educators with medical conditions were able to apply to work remotely, she said, and others who are caregivers could apply for another leave option. A few teachers have retired or resigned, but the majority stayed on.

One thing that notched down the stress, Keding said, is that Mondays are a virtual day from home. Teachers collaborate, plan, check in with students, hold Zoom meetings.

Nancy Lewis, a ceramics teacher, said she worried at first about returning to school. What made a difference was a school board meeting at which school officials answered more than 200 questions posed by parents and employees.

It also helped to Zoom with ceramics teachers across the state to share pandemic safety practices, she said.

So Lewis returned to Liberty High, following every possible safety protocol. One recent day, she was outside school with the hatch of her Honda CRV open so her virtual students could pull up and collect supplies — air-dry clay, markers, art journals.

“I feel like I have pretty good rapport, even with my online students,” she said.

The best there is 'for the times we're in'

Teacher Eric Frank spotted a boy struggling in his class at Penn Elementary one day in mid-October and went to help — easier to do with children in the building. The fourth-grader was confused about the assignment.

Later, as other students worked in their leadership notebooks, Frank delighted in the answers several gave as they identified their “wildly important” goals. “I love this,” he said. “I’ve got two people who said their goal was to go outside more!”

Because it was a Wednesday, the 10 masked children in his class had last names that begin with letters from M to Z. At home, students with names from the first half of the alphabet were learning online. Every other desk goes empty.

“The hard part is you can’t be in two places at once, and you want to be,” said Frank, a teacher for 24 years.

Still, he said, “for the times we’re in, I think it’s the best there is.” It is more demanding, he said, but teachers have learned more about what does and doesn’t work. “It’s definitely more comfortable,” he said this week.

Frank and others like him teach hybrid students. He posts lessons for those at home — vocabulary, reading, math, writing assignments — and answers their emailed questions when he can, but most of his attention during each school day goes to those in the classroom.

A separate group of teachers works with students in elementary school who are 100 percent online. But in middle and high school, it’s different: The same teachers juggle instruction for hybrid and all-online students.

Jane Prodes, an anatomy teacher at Liberty High, says she records lectures to go with her PowerPoint presentations so that students at home can access them online — and uses the same material as she teaches those who are in her classroom.

Ten weeks into the year, she said: “This is working. My kids seem to really like it, and I’ve got the timing down.”

Educators say some students take the wrong message from hybrid learning — that they have days off when they are not physically in school.

“They think, ‘Well, if I’m not in school, then I don’t have school,’ ” said Harrison Bailey III, principal at Liberty High, who points out that they are in high school, not college. “They don’t have the discipline yet,” especially surrounded by distractions: video games, YouTube, movies.

Grades may suffer this marking period, he said. “It’s just difficult,” he said.

The system is urging families with all-online students who failed the first marking period to return for in-person instruction twice a week.

Roy said educators have asked: “How can we make some adjustments to try to engage kids more?”

Peter Mayes, principal of Nitschmann Middle School, with 750 students, said half of his 130 all-virtual students struggle with the format or don’t plug in.

But as he walks the hallways of the light-filled school — the newest in the system — in-person learning is in full swing. “I find the in-person, for most kids, is what they need at this age,” he said.

In one class, teacher Cris Miller narrated the history of colonial America, asking his eighth-
graders about the willingness of colonists to listen to a king across the sea in England. He related it to their lives. “What if your parents were 3,000 miles away?” he asked.

“That’d be fun,” one boy offered through his mask, as others laughed.

“The kids get to know each other, and the teacher gets to know the kids on a much more personal level,” she said.

At Penn Elementary, 9-year-old Angel Zuluaga, counted math as a favorite subject as he wore a cloth mask with bright orange pumpkins one day. “I like seeing my friends and teachers,” he said.

His classmate, Alessandra Wheeler, 9, with a bright-pink backpack and a polka-dot face covering, was matter-of-fact: “From school, I like learning better.”