Ligonier Valley School District will be reopening a little differently when the first day of classes rolls around on Aug. 31 and when the first fall sports practices get started even earlier than that.
The district’s school board at its meeting this week approved three plans related to reopening for 2020-21 — the Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan, which must also be submitted to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the LVSD Learning Reopening Plan and the district Return to Athletics Plan.
District officials stressed that all three plans are “extremely fluid,” and can and will be revised as Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health guidelines regarding COVID-19 change.
For instruction, initial plans call for a “hybrid model” that would involve a combination of in-person instruction and virtual classes, with only about half of the district’s learners inside of school buildings at any given time.
“Because of social distancing, the hybrid model really does make the most sense,” Superintendent Dr. Christine Oldham said. “With six-foot social distancing, there’s no way we can have 100% of our learners in our classrooms. Heath (Fisher, supervisor of buildings and grounds) did quite a bit of work in determining what the classroom capacities are, and they’re 12 to 16 (learners). That really does force us into a 50-50 split.
“In a nutshell, we would have approximately half of the learners come in on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, everybody would be remote and that would be a deep cleaning day. The other half would come in on Thursday and Friday with the weekend — Friday night and Saturday — being the next cleaning days so we’re ready to rotate learners.”
Oldham said modifications to the schedule will be permitted to meet individual needs, whether that means more days receiving instruction in the traditional brick-and-mortar environment or an entirely virtual learning experience.
“Anybody who is a special needs learner would have the option to attend all four days brick-and-mortar,” Oldham said. “Learners who have Career Pathways at EWCTC will attend all four days (in-person) so they can stay on track for their industry certifications.”
The 42-page Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan, posted to the district’s website, includes detailed plans for handling myriad scenarios that could arise when school resumes — from papercuts to positive COVID-19 tests.
“This is the worst-case scenario under green for our reopening for learners, for parents and guardians and for staff. For 200 years we’ve been opening schools on the first day, putting kids on buses, opening up the doors, sending kids to classrooms. We’re really, really skilled at that,” Oldham said. “That can’t be the plan under yellow or green to bring our kids in. If that’s the plan, there’s no way for us to back up and provide something that is not a traditional model. We’ve actually been talking about what reopening will look like since the day we were closed… Initially we anticipated that it would be in April, and then May. Well, it’s in August, so we have to have the worst-case scenario. By having the worst-case scenario, people can plan for the worst and we will hope for the best. If Pennsylvania releases new guidelines, either via the CDC or their own guidelines that relax the six-foot social distancing, that is key. If they relax the six-foot social distancing, then in a matter of days, we would be able to step right back into the type of opening we would expect (normally).”
The district is in the process of confirming with families their plans for the upcoming school year through a “2020-21 Learning Model Selection” form, and a series of “virtual town hall” meetings designed to provide families with information on both the health and safety plans and the learning models are scheduled to begin Monday.
Information about the virtual town hall meetings, as well as a schedule and registration links for the sessions, which will be conducted using the Zoom online video conferencing system, can be found on the district’s website, www.lvsd.k12.us. The town hall meetings will include time for questions and answers.
Those unable to attend a virtual town hall session because of a lack of internet can call 724-238-5696 for alternative options.
“This impacts every layer of our community. When we started talking to parents, including our employees who are parents, the child care issue — I don’t think anybody really understands, at the high level, the child care issue. Here in the Ligonier Valley, we’re 234 square miles with one child care provider outside of private babysitting,” Oldham said. “...This impacts everything in the community, and everybody in the community has a different position as to what would work best, what will work for them, why we can’t do X, Y or Z. This is hard, hard stuff. We’ve got to put a proposal together and a plan together that will address as many of the needs as we can with two primary things being at the front: health and safety of every learner and every staff member as much as we can, and keeping as much quality instruction in place for our kiddos.”
Barring changes to state and local restrictions on large gatherings, Ligonier Valley’s athletes will be competing without spectators when they return to the athletic fields.
In the 13-page “Return to Athletics Guidelines,” the district classifies sports into three risk categories — high, moderate and low.
High-risk sports are those that involve close, sustained contact between participants with a lack of significant protective barriers and high probability that respiratory particles will be transmitted between participants. Examples of high-risk sports in the guidelines are football, wrestling and cheerleading stunts.
Moderate-risk sports also involve close, sustained contact, but with protective equipment in place that may reduce the likelihood of respiratory particle transmission between participants or sports where close contact between participants is intermittent or sports with group equipment that can’t be cleaned between participants. Examples include basketball, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer, ice hockey, 7-on-7 football and some track and field events including pole vault, high jump and long jump.
Low-risk sports can be conducted with social distancing or individually without sharing of equipment or with the ability to clean equipment between use by competitors. The guidelines list cross-country, running and throwing events in track and field, swimming, golf, weightlifting and sideline cheerleading.
Under all phases of Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan, athletes, coaches and staff will undergo COVID-19 screenings before any practice, event or team meeting to check for signs and symptoms of coronavirus. Coaches will wear face coverings as feasible, and the district will promote hand washing and use of hand sanitizer.
The district’s plan includes increased cleaning, disinfection and ventilation in all facilities, and calls for social distancing though increased spacing, use of small groups and limited mixing between groups.
Anyone with a temperature over 100 degrees will not be permitted at any athletic event or practice, and athletes and coaches must provide their own water bottles, as there will be no sharing of water bottles under the guidelines.
The guidelines include three phases, one phase for operating under the yellow phase and two for the green phase.
Under the yellow phase of reopening (Phase 1), coaches and athletes will be limited to interacting through online meetings and athletes can participate in home workouts.
In the first phase under green (Phase 2), outdoor athletic events will be limited to 25 people, including coaches and spectators, while indoor events will be limited to 15 individuals. Concession stands will not be operating. In the first phase, the guidelines call for controlled non-contact practices and modified game rules, as well as social distancing at practices and in locker rooms and gathering areas.
Low-risk sports can begin practices under Phase 2, while modified practices can start for moderate- and high-risk sports, with practices remaining non-contact and implementing social distancing where possible. Shared equipment such as balls, tackling dummies, pole vault poles and track and field throwing implements, etc. will be cleaned intermittently during practices and events.
After 14 days of using small groups, if the community disease load is not rising, the team can move into the next phase (Phase 3).
In Phase 3, all coaches and athletes will undergo temperature checks prior to each practice or event, attendance will be recorded at each practice or event, and anyone with positive symptoms will not be permitted to participate in workouts or competition.
State and local guidelines will dictate attendance limits under Phase 3, according to district guidelines.
All categories of sports can have practices and competitions under Phase 3, as per state, local and PIAA guidelines.
The guidelines also outline who should be allowed at athletic events, with three tiers: Tier 1 includes athletes, coaches, officials and event, medical and security staff. The second tier is limited to members of the media, while the third tier includes spectators and vendors.
Under the district’s guidelines, only Tier 1 and Tier 2 individuals will be permitted to attend athletic events until state and local governments lift restrictions on mass gatherings. If those restrictions are lifted, changes to seating capacity may be needed, with details to be determined as more recommendations are issued by state, local and district officials.