Bermudian Springs Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss expressed frustration with state pandemic-related regulations and guidance for schools during the school board’s meeting on Monday evening.
“Two weeks ago– so there’s an anonymous line that somebody can call and complain about any school district not meeting and following the attestation,” Hotchkiss said. “I received a complaint. I got a call from the Department of Education. I knew it wasn’t good. I was like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So somebody in our community anonymously called to complain and say we aren’t following the masking guidelines on school buses. And I know that we are. There was no detail. And so I get a letter from the general counsel from the governor, and I get an email with a significant letter that I have to provide evidence. And it’s like eight or nine pieces of detailed information just because of an anonymous complaint. And I have to demonstrate to the Department of Education what we’re doing.”
“And I’ll be honest with you, I was a little bit feisty because I just think that the whole idea of something anonymous, and in this case, we couldn’t even get a bus number, a bus stop or a time,” he said. “But we still had to respond.”
Eventually, Hotchkiss said the district was cleared.
Also expressing COVID-19 frustrations were five people, including parents and students, who addressed the board during the meeting. All of them expressed dissatisfaction with this school year, and some were unhappy with the hybrid school schedule.
The two students who spoke said that they’ve both struggled this year and know others have as well. One woman also asked that the district not hold Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests and Keystone testing this year due to lower academic scores during the pandemic. She also asked that the board begin working on a reopening strategy.
Hotchkiss said that district leadership is limited by the attestation form the state had each district sign in November. While he acknowledged that school boards have limited control, he said that part of signing the form was agreeing to adhere to rules from the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Pennsylvania Department of Education. The only other option was to close the districts and go fully virtual until released by the state.
“In that attestation, the board agreed, and we all agreed, that we are going to follow the rules and expectations set forth by the Department of Health and the Department of Education, okay?” Hotchkiss said. “And so in that are all of those orders: the masks, the social distancing to the greatest extent possible, all of the guidelines; specifically, one of the things that they really changed were the number of cases that would happen in a size of a school. Those are things we have zero control over, so when it comes down to closing the school down because of cases, that’s not a decision– that is in the Department of Health chart.”
Schools use rules from the state to determine when there have been too many positive cases of the new coronavirus. Once the threshold of COVID-19 cases is reached in a rolling two-week window, a school must close for at least a few days, depending on the number of cases it has.
Hotchkiss said he participated in a conference call with other superintendents and they want to know if the schools can expect changes to the guidelines. In the meantime, failing to comply with the state could cause unwanted consequences.
If the district doesn’t comply, Hotchkiss said it could be shut down. But guidelines have changed even in recent months, and Hotchkiss said he hopes to hear updated rules soon.
“That’s the frustration,” he said. “You’re telling me we have to follow these rules. Your rules say that, to be honest with you, that the high school should be 100 percent virtual. I don’t want to put the school district in jeopardy by not doing that. I don’t know what happens to those other high schools in those other districts that are bringing them back face-to-face. I know as a commissioned officer of the state my job is to make sure I’m following those guidelines.”
Hotchkiss said he wants the ability to make more decisions if the district thinks it can take proper safety measures.
“So here’s the ask,” he said. “I contacted the Department of Health, I reached out to the Department of Education: Like most things, please just revisit your expectations for us. Call me. I’ll tell you how things are going. I’ll give you all the data you need. Because we’ve often said throughout this pandemic that we’re going to use data. Well, let us give you some real data here.”
The choice to bring kindergarten through sixth grade back to school was made at a local level, but Hotchkiss said that the chart he has from the state says that the high school classes should be held virtually. The district plans to begin bringing students in grades K-2 and 5-6 back from Monday through Thursday on Feb. 16, with half-days on Fridays. Grades 3-4 will hold the same schedule beginning Feb. 22 and will also have half-days on Fridays.
Hotchkiss said that the district is working through plans for eventually bringing back all of the students, saying that the number of students and “traffic flow each period” make planning for the high school tricky.
“Rest assured that it’s a continuing conversation and as we get more information, if there are any changes, I’m hoping some things are coming out,” Hotchkiss said. “Even now to a weekly basis we’re getting updates on vaccines and we’ll keep reporting out.”
The next regular board meeting is scheduled to be held at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday, March 9
Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.