New school year, same pandemic

Grappling with contagious variant, state mandates

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 9/21/21

NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — With a new school year ahead, teachers and students would have liked to leave COVID-19 behind them. A few weeks in, however, it’s already proving to be another …

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New school year, same pandemic

Grappling with contagious variant, state mandates

Posted

NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — With a new school year ahead, teachers and students would have liked to leave COVID-19 behind them. A few weeks in, however, it’s already proving to be another year shaped by the pandemic.

Mask mandate

This was clear as early as August 31, when the PA Department of Health issued a mandate that all teachers, students, staff members and visitors would have to mask up inside the commonwealth’s public schools. Citing climbing case numbers of the highly contagious delta variant, a lack of vaccines for children under 12, and a shared desire to maintain in-person learning, the department set no end date for the face-covering mandate.

As with most government decisions regarding COVID-19, the order was met with mixed reactions throughout the state. For school districts like Western Wayne and Wayne Highlands, which had already decided to require masks in light of high transmission rates, the order was redundant.

For others, like Delaware Valley (DV) in Pike County, it left administrators asking government officials to “make up your mind.”

“They sent everybody into a tailspin all around the state,” said DV superintendent John Bell, whose district’s first day back was mask-optional. By day two, the new mandate had arrived, reversing that policy. “We just opened, we all have our own plans, they told us they weren’t going to [require masks], and then they did it anyway.”

The mandate immediately reignited old tensions between the state government and its school districts; through the entire pandemic, the two have struggled to establish how autonomous one is from the other. Some districts around the state are disputing the health department’s legal ability to issue this masking mandate. Until something changes, however, Wayne Highlands School District superintendent Greg Frigoletto said that they have little choice but to comply.

“While some might disagree with the [department’s] factual, or underlying premises… there is, at this point, no doubt that they have the legal authority to make mandatory orders within their statutory, given authority,” Frigoletto said. “What is believed at this point is that the order has ‘presumptive validity,’ and that it is enforceable unless it were to be repealed by the state legislature or declared invalid by a court.”

Pennsylvania Republicans, school districts and parents have filed cases against the Department of Health in various courts throughout the state. Legal experts expect judges to side against the health department, but they’re not dismissing these legal challenges completely. (Making predictions based on precedent in a post-2020 world is a fool’s errand, after all.)

Enforcing it

While, for the time being, Pennsylvania school districts can’t ignore face-covering requirements without incurring serious consequences, districts do seem to have some leeway in the way they enforce these rules. Western Wayne’s superintendent Matthew Barrett said that the district wants to avoid making it a disciplinary issue “by all means.”

“We’ve tried to take as collaborative an approach as possible… because we want the kids in school; that’s the whole point,” he said. “But there were some situations where [students] were still not compliant [after conversations with teachers and administrators], so then we would have to ask the parent to come pick this child up and take them home for the day.”

Delaware Valley has opted for more leniency, allowing students to get doctors’ notes exempting them from wearing masks, and giving them a grace period before a doctor’s note is required. Through September, parents themselves can sign a form allowing their child to avoid the mask mandate. By October 1, Bell said DV will be requiring a signed doctor’s note if students wish to continue coming to school maskless.

“That was a temporary form just to get us through September, to give the parents three weeks to get in and see a doctor and get the approvals that they need,” Bell said, adding that among the district’s seven schools, somewhere between 85 and 90 percent are currently masked. “That 10 or 15 percent [currently unmasked] is probably going to be one or two percent after October 1.”

Highly contagious

Global and national data has shown that the new delta variant is highly contagious. According to administrators, that trend is certainly panning out at the local level as well. Wayne Highlands’ Facebook page shows one press release after another about newly confirmed COVID cases among students. Worse yet, many of the cases seem to be originating in the elementary and primary schools.

“Wayne County had a number of cases last year; there were not a lot of young people in those statistics,” he said. “There seems to be more now.”

The story is the same elsewhere.

“The delta variant is definitely spreading faster, or more easily, than what we went through last year,” Bell said. “This fall, we’ve only been in school three weeks, but we’ve already had 27 cases. Last year, I think we were single digits in the month of September, and this September we’re going to be in the 30s, or 40s, or 50s.”

Barrett said that Western Wayne has also seen “several” positive cases, but thanks to the safety measures in place, fewer students and teachers within the vicinity of a positive case have had to quarantine, assuming they have no symptoms.

“As long as you’re not demonstrating symptoms, and you’re vaccinated and masked, you don’t have to quarantine,” Barrett said.

Stay in school

Across the board, local to state, everyone seems in agreement that students learn best when they’re in school; even the best cyber-experience can’t compare to in-person instruction. Bell noted that local NEPA schools are fortunate to have already gone through the “growing pains” of being open five days a week last year, unlike New York State and other PA schools, which largely ran on hybrid schedules.

While each district has the tools in place to once again go virtual if necessary, all administrators emphasized that teaching through a computer screen is a last resort. Barrett said the synchronous learning option is being reserved for “emergency situations.” Frigoletto echoed the same sentiment for Wayne Highlands.

“[Last year], it became clear that in-person instruction is the most credible and appropriate way to educate,” Frigoletto said. “We really—like every other school district across the state—are doing everything we can to make in-person instruction something we can keep and continue moving forward.”

As the year progresses, administrators will continue performing the balancing act of achieving healthy, safe school buildings; high-quality, in-person instruction; and a pleasant, “normal” environment for students.

“They only get one shot at this,” Bell said. “We’re just trying to make it as normal as possible, without it being risky.”

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