WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Summer vacation is winding down, but COVID-19 numbers are holding steady in Pennsylvania. While PA’s Health Department reported somewhere between 700 and 1,000 new cases per day last week, area superintendents released answers to the month’s biggest question from parents, students, faculty and staff: How will schools reopen this fall?
Wayne Highlands, Western Wayne and Wallenpaupack Area school districts have all responded similarly: schools will reopen fully with alternatives available. This gives parents and students three options to choose from: 1) attend school traditionally, in person, five days a week; 2) attend live classes virtually from home, utilizing videotelephony to allow teachers and students in school to interact with students at home and vice versa; and 3) learn through an online, cyber-schooling program offered by the district.
The full-reopening option sets these districts apart from those in neighboring counties like Sullivan and Lackawanna counties, where multiple schools have announced plans to operate at 50-percent capacity—sometimes known as a “hybrid model.” Greg Frigoletto, superintendent at Wayne Highlands, said that the decision for his district was based on Wayne County’s COVID-19 numbers and feedback from parents.
“In a lot of areas in the state, there are a lot of differences in the data... Wayne County, thank God, has had a relatively low number of cases,” he said, adding that federal guidance suggests fully reopening is an option for areas with case numbers as low as Wayne County.
According to the PA Health Department’s website, Wayne County reported around 19 new cases over the month of July. (Data for July 31 was not available at press time).
Frigoletto also referenced a recent informational video released by Wayne Memorial Hospital, in which James Cruse, medical director of Wayne Memorial Community Health Centers, said that he feels reopening schools in Wayne County is safe.
“[The CDC] particularly recommends the benchmark of less than five percent of your tests are positive, and we have that right now in Wayne and Pike counties; in fact, over the past couple of weeks, our test positive rate has been around two percent,” Cruse said.
The districts have also used federal and state guidelines to draft in-depth health and safety plans, which include updated cleaning and ventilation procedures, isolation and quarantining protocols, transportation plans and social distancing rules, among much else. Unlike other schools in the region that will be screening students for fevers as they enter buses or school buildings, Wayne Highlands, Wallenpaupack and Western Wayne say that parents and guardians must do these daily screenings at home in the morning. The districts’ plans can be read on their websites.
In a June survey from the district, 1,802 Wayne Highlands parents (75 percent of the overall parent population) answered questions about their reopening preferences: 73.5 percent said they “hoped” for a traditional reopening, 17.8 percent hoped for a hybrid option and 8.7 hoped for remote learning.
While the majority of parents may have been wishing to reopen traditionally, the school’s decision defied the expectations of others. Todd Wolfenberg, a Wayne County resident with children enrolled at Wayne Highlands, called the news “surprising and certainly concerning.” He also said that many of the quandaries involved in a safe reopening are “unanswerable” and that this is true beyond academia.
“Think about professional sports leagues that are opening right now and facing this challenge; even with billions of dollars behind them, they’re still not able to get these things under control—I think major league baseball lasted four days before they had a major outbreak,” Wolfenberg said. “I think it’s just overly ambitious... in a far less controlled environment, how are you going to be able to manage all of those things and answer all of those questions?” He said that school districts cannot control what students do and what environments they are exposed to outside of school, and that he doubts that students will adhere to the school’s social distancing guidelines.
Frigoletto said that from a “very deep emotional place,” he respects the fact that some people will disagree with the decision to reopen schools, which is why the district is offering alternative options. Wolfenberg said that learning remotely “is a really nice option for people,” though he said it may not be realistic for those who can’t arrange child care every day.
With several weeks to go before the first day of school, it’s unclear how many Wayne County students will be walking into a classroom and how many will be logging onto one. Frigoletto said his primary hope for Wayne Highlands—as parents read the health and safety plan and make their decisions—is that the district’s sense of community is preserved.
“Because we are all in this together and because we all understand that people will view this differently, my great hope is that at no time will this become adversarial,” he said. “We all would agree that the best place for kids to learn is in our schools in front of their teachers and with their peers, and if it takes time for people to feel comfortable enough for their children to return to that, we respect it, and that’s why we provided those options.”
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