State College School Board votes to offer in-person classes to start the school year; gives Covid case threshold for moving online

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WTAJ)– Monday evening’s State College School Board meeting went long into the night, lasting till more than six hours from 7:00 p.m till 1:25 a.m.

The main discussion point during those six and-a-half hours: How will the district will start the school year? In person, or online?

Close to 800 parents and students listened-in on the video board meeting–many giving their thoughts to the board. This ultimately helped board members arrive at their conclusion: allowing students to start the year with in-person classes.

Tuesday, WTAJ followed-up on the school board’s decision, speaking with State College Area School District (SCASD) parents, students, and SCASD’s Superintendent Dr. Robert O’Donnell.

“Parents care about what’s happening with our kids, and the community cares about out schools because we’re such a large part of this big, little-town. We’re very fortunate to have the involvement,” Dr. O’Donnell said–referencing the considerable number of district parents and community members who commented at Monday’s school board meeting.

Dr. O’Donnell said as a result of the board’s decision, parents will have the option to have their children enroll in a virtual academy, or attend in-person classes.

For those returning to in-person classes:

  • Students from grades 6 through 12 will go to school every other day. (They will rotate between two and three days of face-to-face learning each week).
  • Elementary students can go to school every day.

However, Dr. O’Donnell said the district’s plans could shift.

“We can respond if things change quickly. Right now our community is doubling in size with people from around the country,” he said, referencing the influx of Penn State students. “If we’re able to do some of our work in person, we’re gonna do that. If we’re forced to be fully remote, we’re gonna be prepared for that too.”

Dr. O’Donnell said each day the district will look at:

  • New Covid-19 cases (confirmed by PA’s Department of Health) in Centre County
  • Incidence rate per 100,000 residents
  • Centre County’s Covid-19 positivity rate
  • The average daily hospitalizations (locally) due to Covid-19
  • The average daily Covid-19 patients (locally) on ventilators
  • The percentage of emergency hospital visits due to Covid-like-illness

The district’s school board approved a threshold for closing school buildings and shutting down in-person learning.

This will happen if:

  • Between 80 and 120 (or more) new Covid-19 cases (confirmed by PA DOH) are reported within one week in Centre Co.
  • Between 50 and 75 new Covid-19 cases (confirmed by PA DOH) are reported in the district’s zip codes within one week
  • A positive case rate for district zip codes or Centre County reaches between 5% and 7.5% (or more) within one week
  • Mount Nittany Health reaches its Covid-19 critical care capacity

Other factors the district will consider in potentially closing down schools include:

  • The number of teachers, staff, and students needing to quarantine due to Covid-19
  • Unusually high increases in positive test results in Centre County or SCASD community
  • PA DOH’s recommendation for closing an individual school (1-to-5 or more Covid-19 cases in a school building)
  • Direct advisement from PA DOH

Certain confirmed Covid-19 cases in Centre County may not be counted as part of the thresholds listed above. SCASD said cases at a county nursing home or county prison could be excluded by the district if they “are not directly related to our SCASD community.”

Dr. O’Donnell said all of these factors–with Covid numbers changing every day–is a lot for the district to consider.

“This is the biggest problem that I’ve had to deal with in my time in education–I hope to never deal with it again,” he said, acknowledging there are many tough conversations that occur during a pandemic.

Some, like SCASD senior student Corrie Porter, disagreed with the school board’s decision to allow in-person classes.

“I feel like we should just start with not going to school at all,” she said “When everyone’s back together there’s a really high chance of Covid spreading, so why have that when you can just avoid it and go online.”

Other students WTAJ spoke with agreed with the school board.

“We don’t know what’s gonna happen in the future and right now we’re gonna have to start anyway. We should start with in-person class every-other day for now and adjust on how the environment might change,” SCASD student Lisa Fujii said.

She added: “I think zoom is way different—you’re on a screen–you won’t be as focused, kids will be on their phones. I think it will be better to start off like a normal school day and change from there.”

Another student, wishing to remain anonymous, agreed: “This is for the best because in-person class is so much better because we’re more focused.”

The student also said returning Penn State students won’t make an immediate impact on SCASD’s Covid-19 cases.

“The college students are in college and we’re in high school and we don’t really interact that much,” the student said.

But, Dr. O’Donnell spoke to the contrary: “PSU students haven’t been here to a large degree and now they’re going to be here to a large degree. They’re spread through the community. We shop at the same grocery stores and get pizza from the same pizza shops. We do interact quite a bit.”

He said he hopes everyone in the State College community, and beyond, does their part to keep the virus from spreading.

“We’re all in this together—if there’s alignment by our community, we’re in a better situation than if we’re misaligned,” Dr. O’Donnell said.

All 16 SCASD parents WTAJ spoke with Tuesday said they feel the school board made the right decision. The parents agreed that in-person classes were better than online learning, and feel confident that the district can adapt new learning plans if needed.

Dr. O’Donnell said as of Tuesday, the district did not have access to the results Covid-19 tests Penn State required for returning students. He said PSU will share these results with SCASD on Thursday.

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