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County School Districts Struggle with COVID, but Remain Mostly Open for Now

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The county’s six school districts and the VIDA Charter School are each struggling in their own ways to keep students and staff healthy, maintain appropriate staffing levels, allow sports where possible and — most importantly – remain open. 

In addition to teaching, the districts are now tasked with making sure students wear their facemasks in school and on the buses to and from school, working with students and staff who have been exposed to COVID, monitoring class sizes, and communicating COVID-related information to the community through phone calls, emails, and postings on websites and social media.

Although a focus has been on safety, districts are also monitoring student learning. Some districts have initially reported regression, but also some signs of recovery.  More will be known about effects of the pandemic on learning after the end of the first semester in January.

The schools are following state guidelines when they have confirmed COVID-19 cases, and otherwise doing the best they can to keep case counts low. The state has put decisions about how to proceed in the hands of the individual districts, conditional on written assurance they will follow state guidelines.

At this time the state requires universal face coverings in school, on school grounds, and at all sporting events. Decisions about temporarily closing schools or even returning to a fully online model are being made on the basis of the two-week rolling average of cases in the district and the current infection rate in the county.

Most districts continue to use hybrid models in which students attend school only part of the week and many districts have had to close classes or entire schools for at least some periods of time.

Staffing has become critical in some schools, and personnel continue to express concerns about bringing the virus home to their families.

It has been increasingly difficult to find substitute teachers during the pandemic, with the Fairfield Area School District (FASD) reporting in November that about a third of their substitutes did not show up and that students had been assigned to study halls in the cafeteria because there was no one to supervise them in individual classrooms.

Districts are also concerned about teachers, staff, and counselors who must move among elementary, middle, high schools and may spread the virus doing so.

The Gettysburg Area School District (GASD) COVID dashboard currently reports six confirmed COVID cases and 132 people in quarantine across the district. The GASD Middle School has been closed since Friday December 5 and will not reopen again until at least next Monday, December 12.

At FASD, at least a dozen teachers were away from school due to infection or quarantine in late November, and over 50 students were quarantined over one weekend. A recently-hired COVID nurse left after two days because she felt uncomfortable in the school.

The districts are also spending substantial energy keeping their athletic programs going although these programs represent added danger to all students.  State regulations now limit indoor capacity in gyms to only ten percent of their normal capacity.

At Conewago Valley School District (CVSD), classes have been entirely online since November 23 due to COVID concerns, but the district expects to return to classroom learning on November 8. Superintendent Christopher Rudisill said there have now been about 50 cases in the district since the start of school.

Littlestown Area School District (LASD) Superintendent Christopher Bigger said his district has reported six confirmed cases of COVID since the beginning of the school year. He noted the difficulties of balancing desires to further open schools and needs to be safe. “It’s really interesting when you’re out there hearing schools planning for bringing more students back because of academic failures, mental health issues, and parents pushing to have more face-to-face teaching, but at the same time you have schools saying you have to go virtual,” Bigger said.

Bigger said most families have been good about keeping students home who have been exposed or infected. Bigger anticipates keeping the LASD schools open unless the virus spreads dramatically, too many adults are ill to properly staff the schools, or if the district is closed by the Department of Health.

“Our plan is good and we continue moving forward,” said Bigger. “But I also can read some writing on the wall.”

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At the Upper Adams School District (UASD), Superintendent Wesley Doll said the district continued to monitor and coordinate with the state. “We must continue to work together each day because this is a continued community effort,” said Doll.

Doll said the district had been approved by the state to stay with in-person instruction as long as it can but that the district was working on plans for remote instruction in case something changes.

Doll said the school was increasing electrostatic and touchpoint cleaning.

These are unusual times and we’re all dedicated to keep in the school open,” said school board president Tom Wilson.  “When you have to go all remote it’s at best a second-class effort.”

Doll said he did not currently see evidence of spread in his district. “Our efforts so far have been good. We’re at high alert at this point,” Doll said.

Unlike other districts, the UASD “Return to Play” plan for winter sports does not allow competition while schools are in the “substantial” stage of COVID spread as they are now. “I appreciate what this means to the athletes,” said Doll. “We’re not cancelling sports; we’re trying to do them safely.”

VIDA Charter School executive director Christine Miller said there had not been any known cases of the virus at her school in either staff or students.

“Everybody has been healthy and we are extremely grateful. We’re watching what’s happening locally and how other schools are responding,” said Miller.

Miller said the charter school was preparing by helping teachers learn to deliver instruction remotely. “If we have to go remote we know what technology students have at home. We can assign devices to students on the go,” Miller said.

Miller said the way the school communicates has changed. “We didn’t even have email addresses for most of our families a year ago at this time, but now, except for just a couple of families, we have working email addresses for everybody. These things are going to be helpful for us moving forward, even when, at some point, we don’t have remote learning.”

“I will be happy to get back to normal and have the kids all in the cafeteria together. It’s social time, and they want to talk with their friends,” said Miller. “I’m so grateful for our entire school community. Everybody is really rolling up their sleeves to make it safe so ultimately the kids can be here and be learning. It’s a special community and everybody is caring for each other. I’m just very impressed every day with what I see,” said Miller.

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Charles Stangor is Gettysburg Connection's Publisher and Editor in Chief.

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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.

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