All students within the Greater Latrobe School District have the option to return to school, five days a week, full time.

Members of the school board voted by a 6-2 margin on Tuesday to provide a blended instructional model, in which all K-12 students have the choice to attend school five days a week in a brick-and-mortar setting, or choose to participate full time in the district’s online program. The updated instructional model will begin Monday, Sept. 28, with all social distancing and face covering requirements still in full effect.

Greater Latrobe superintendent Dr. Georgia Teppert said that district officials consulted with its medical expert panel on Monday regarding the current positive coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the county, and particularly positive cases involving school-aged students.

Teppert added that there was support from members of the district’s medical panel for secondary students to return to school on Monday, Sept. 28, five days a week, in a brick-and-mortar setting, provided Westmoreland County and Greater Latrobe schools do not see a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases in the next week and a half.

“We were informed that there are no demographic details for our county regarding age-related trends. However, statewide numbers of cases involving student-age children under 19 remain low with approximately 7% of all cases accounted for in this age group,” Teppert said.

“It was also stated that overall case numbers continue to rise daily, but the rate of rise has slowed. The medical panel recommended continuing to monitor the numbers of positive COVID-19 cases, not only in Westmoreland County, but particularly within the Greater Latrobe community.”

School board president Dr. Michael Zorch, a retired emergency room physician, voted in favor of the motion, in addition to board vice president Steven LoCascio, Eric Hauser, Susan Mains, Merle Musick and William Palmer. Paul McCommons was absent.

Board members discussed the motion for more than two hours, hearing from the public, while offering their own takes, as well.

“I think the kids need to go back to school,” Zorch said. “I think the county numbers have been pretty low, and hospitalization rates for kids across the county have been low. Critically ill kids are almost unheard of.

“Obviously, we’re going to have cases. It’s going to happen. We’re going to see some kids get sick, and we’re going to have to make decisions about what happens. Our objective is not to let kids go back and shut it down in three days. We want to do the best we can to keep kids in school.”

Heidi Kozar and Cathy Sarraf cast the two dissenting votes.

“Our students have a lower immunity and transmission rate, which is wonderful,” Kozar said. “But there’s more than students in these buildings. We have teachers, older staff members and grandparents who are raising these children. I worry for all of those populations.”

District staff members have been in the building for four weeks and students returned for instruction three weeks ago. Teppert stressed the importance of students receiving face-to-face instruction in a brick-and-mortar setting, noting the opportunity to build positive, caring relationships with teachers, staff members and classmates.

Last month, the district approved a hybrid learning model for junior and senior high students and a five-day, brick-and-mortar setting for elementary students. It was noted that 87% of district students attended classes in person, while 13% were online only. Several parents spoke out during Tuesday’s meeting, noting that the hybrid learning model, including three online days and two in person, wasn’t working for their students.

“We went with the hybrid plan for the junior and senior high because we were concerned about kids getting sick,” Zorch said. “We were also concerned about staff getting sick because we have a lot more kids in the building than grade school.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that we haven’t had problems. I was afraid we’d have an explosion of cases and we’d go back to the state mandate of online education.”

If a student is currently enrolled in the district’s hybrid model, district officials are assuming they will return to a full-time, brick-and-mortar setting on Monday, Sept. 28. If it’s not the case, parents are asked to contact the student’s school counselor for any changes.

If a student is enrolled in the district’s online program, and parents wish to enroll them in a brick-and-mortar setting, they can contact their student’s school counselor.

“Early next week, a letter will be sent to parents notifying them of our instructional model beginning Monday, Sept. 28, provided local circumstances remain constant,” Teppert said. “Please remember that GLSD reserves the right to move to a more restrictive instructional model at any time, as local circumstances dictate. We thank you for your support and understanding while navigating these most difficult times.”

Parents and guardians are asked to continue daily temperature checks on their children before sending them to school.

“If your child has a temperature of 100.4 or greater, keep your child home and contact your pediatrician or primary care physician,” Teppert said. “If you are unable to complete a temperature check on your child, please alert the building nurse, so your child’s temperature can be checked upon arrival to school.”

Kurt Thomas, the district’s director of operations and planning, informed board members about the incorporation of a technology which produces a high concentration of ions that, when in contact with pathogens, is expected to disrupt and render them inactive.

Thomas plans to recommend, through the district’s capital projects budget, a partnership with Siemens to install the technology to all existing district HVAC systems, a project that could cost upwards of $450,000 with completion close to the beginning of the year. Final board approval of the project could come at next month’s meeting.

Until then, Jon Mains, high school principal, noted that his teachers are under a great deal of stress, balancing online and in-person learning, but he’s happy with the start of the school year under the current parameters.

“I’m not a huge fan of asking a student to sit in front of their computer and follow a traditional bell schedule,” Mains said. “I don’t think that’s appropriate for a student. But I don’t think there’s a perfect system. We’re working through it, but our teachers are doing a fantastic job given the circumstances.”

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