Derry Area School District outlined its initial 2020-21 reopening plans in the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic during Thursday’s regular school board meeting.
A presentation by superintendent Eric Curry covered 10 areas of focus to keep students and staff members safe in light of the pandemic, including items related to: cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting; social distancing; learner and staff health; training for understanding and compliance; learning models; brick and mortar; remote learning; hybrid model; transportation, and examples of temporary exclusions.
“We’re hoping for the best, but we’re preparing for the worst,” he said.
The reopening plan includes a baseline for guidelines related to holding classes while ensuring social distancing, transportation measures aimed at providing the same level of protection as in classes, and education options that may include in-person learning, remote learning and a weekly “hybrid” mix that combines both remote and in-person learning.
Curry said any reopening plans are fluid based on new information coming from state health officials.
The district’s goal is to unveil its final reopening plans at a work session meeting slated for July 30.
Following Thursday’s presentation, Curry read a letter addressed to district parents.
The letter will be mailed to parents and is currently available for viewing on the district website.
Curry said there are at least three potential learning models that may be used next school year, including brick and mortar, remote learning and hybrid learning.
Brick and mortar learning — or in-person learning at the district’s three school buildings — is what Curry and other school administrators are hoping eventually becomes a reality.
“This is our desire, to get our kids and our staff back just as it was (in March) and get them back to school, because we know that’s the best environment for our kids to learn in,” Curry said. “That’s the best-case scenario at this point in time.”
However, based on current social distancing guidelines, Curry cautioned that the district is “limited by space and we’re not sure we have enough open classrooms and/or teachers to fully return to brick and mortar if the current (Pennsylvania Department of Education) guidelines for health and safety stay in place.”
Remote learning this coming school year, Curry noted, would be similar to what was used by students and teachers after Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all Pennsylvania K-12 schools to close in March.
“Obviously, we’ve learned a lot since this was dropped on us in (March),” he said. “But we’re looking at a similar situation from what we had in the spring, if we have to go to remote learning. This is the worst-case scenario for us.”
Remote instruction, Curry said, will be able to be done in real time with a teacher instructing or through a mode where teachers are uploading information for students into Google Classroom.
Curry said Derry Area is awaiting grant funding that will aid in the purchase of Chromebooks for all district students.
“We will make sure to accommodate all students who need a device,” he said. “That was one of the things that was (made) very loud and clear, especially from our elementary parents. From a technology standpoint, we did not have the resources available to make Chromebooks available to all of our kids in the elementary school, and that was extremely problematic. That’s one of the things we’re working on, (and grant funding) will help us purchase Chromebooks.”
Hybrid learning is a combination of brick and mortar and remote learning. While nothing is finalized, proposed hybrid plans call for the separation of students into two groups — A and B — who would attend school in person on opposite days.
“This would allow us to accommodate social distancing but to also continue the instruction on a daily basis,” Curry said.
Under the hybrid plan, students would have two days of in-school instruction and two days of remote learning with their assigned groups. All students would have remote learning on Wednesdays, Curry noted, to allow for the building “to be disinfected and deep cleaned before the next group of students comes in.” A possible hybrid schedule discussed at last week’s meeting included classes for Group A on Mondays and Tuesdays and Group B on Thursdays and Fridays.
Maintaining social distancing is another challenge of the reopening plan, Curry said.
“We’re looking at appropriate ways to distance between our learners,” he said. “... Obviously, 6 feet of space for social distancing does create some problems with the limited space we have in classrooms.”
While Curry said the district will make sure to have masks available for students, district officials still aren’t sure what the latest reopening guidelines will say regarding mask-wearing in classrooms.
“I’m really concerned about how kids can be expected to wear a mask all day, especially kindergartners and first-graders,” he said. “One of the things that is pretty clear is we can ask our kids and our staff to wear masks as they’re changing classes and might be in common areas together.”
“One of the biggest questions we have is if — and when — we have a student or staff member test positive for COVID, what is our response going to be?” Curry added. “We’re still working on that.”
One of the largest communal areas within the district is school cafeterias, and Curry said Derry Area officials are working on guidelines on how to safely serve meals and provide a clean lunchroom between shifts. Other communal areas — such as lobbies, gymnasiums and large group instruction rooms — will also be a primary focus of the district.
Curry said the district is also working on plans for deep cleaning and improved ventilation, where needed, within district buildings.
“We’re going to make sure there is an increased protocol for cleaning the classrooms on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re looking at ways we can increase airflow for better ventilation, as the weather permits. If you’ve been on the second floor of the middle school recently, it gets pretty warm up there at times.”
Having students maintain social distancing guidelines while riding buses is another component of the reopening plan. Curry said the district is working with its longtime bus contractor, Smith Bus Company of Burrell Township, on what a pandemic-era transportation plan may look like.
Curry said regular bus transportation will be provided to and from students’ homes, just as was the case under normal circumstances. Buses will also be provided to the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center (EWCTC) in Derry Township, while district activity buses will be available as well.
“One of the big problems that arises with this, though, is we’ve been pretty lenient on issuing bus passes for alternate stops,” Curry said. “So you can imagine that if we have to start bringing one group Monday and Tuesday and another group Thursday and Friday, making alternative stops is going to be extremely limited, if at all.”
The district’s reopening plan also puts a temporary hold on many traditional school events such as assemblies and concerts, along with not allowing classroom visitors from the community or Derry Area’s 300-plus school volunteers to enter school buildings during the pandemic. Curry said events such as back to school nights would be held virtually.
“We’re going to have situations that we know are good for learning that we’re just not going to be able to do until we’re up and running 100%,” he said. “... We’re going to be extremely limited in the types of things we’re able to do.”
The Westmoreland County Commissioners on Thursday accepted $31.5 million in federal funding through the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program, and enlisted professional assistance in determining how to distribute the money.
The commissioners approved an agreement with Zelenkofske Axelrod LLC to have the firm offer its assistance in navigating eligible expenditures for the COVID-19-related grant funding.
“Until (Zelenkofske Axelrod) officially starts, we’re still in the limbo phase. We keep hearing different abilities we can use this money for, different understandings and reasonings and justifications,” commissioners chairman Sean Kertes said. “The one thing we learned, for counties and municipalities, what’s been very clear for the government side is that (the county) and municipalities — Unity Township, Ligonier Borough, whatever ones you want to use — cannot use this for lost revenue. They can’t use this for fixing any roads or filling any budget gaps or holes. It’s truly for COVID expenses. If they had to put Plexiglas up or had to buy computers or had to buy tons of gloves.”
The cost of Zelenkofske Axelrod’s services, capped at $200,000, according to the commissioners, will be covered through the block grant funds.
“It is up to the commissioners to decide how to use their (Zellenkofske Axelrod’s) expertise. We intentionally sought out an agreement that had flexibility since there is no framework for these acts and funds,” commissioner Doug Chew said in an email to the Bulletin. “...Zelenkofske Axelrod has been contracted by a few counties to assist. Some of those assistance ways are: developing applications, developing online resources for applicants, managing the auditing process of funds spent, etc.”
The COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program is administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development to counties that aren’t directly funded through the federal government. Sixty of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties meet that criteria, according to the DCED.
The DCED website’s page outlining information about the COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant program lists the following eligible uses for grant funds:
Kertes said the county is hoping to be able to use the grant funds to cover overtime costs during the pandemic, and the commissioners plan to be conservative with the money in case the county must re-implement COVID-19 safety measures like temperature checks at county buildings.
“This money is also for a second wave,” he said. “If we have to add anything back into what we have to do, if something would happen or Governor Wolf would shut us down again and we have to put these protocols back in place, we’re going to draw down that money again to help us out to bring temperature takers back.”
Westmoreland County Director of Financial Administration Meghan McCandless said the county had about $700,000 in what was coded in payroll as “pandemic pay,” and so far in 2020 the county has spent roughly $430,000 on COVID-19 related items.
Small businesses will eventually be able to apply to the county seeking funding from the grant, although the specific mechanism for awarding funds to businesses is being developed, Kertes said.
“Businesses follow a different tier because of the way the law is written. We need clarification before we make any assumptions on that. Zelenkofske Axelrod and their auditors and attorneys they’re bringing to the table are working with other counties and they have a true perspective of how this is already working. The people they have working with these bigger counties, it’s going to be very beneficial to us,” Kertes said. “We’re going to work out how we’re going to handle this with a grant recipient process. They’re going to apply like a typical grant process with the name of the business, reasons and justifications. If they meet the criteria, they’ll receive what they’re asking, but once again there will be restrictions on what they can do. We can’t just give a business $40,000. It has to have justifications of what they need.”
In addition to the $31,508,670 in COVID-19 County Relief Block Grant funds, the commissioners approved accepting $28,454 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) funds for child welfare services, as well as participation in the 2020 Pennsylvania CARES Rent Relief Program. The commissioners also approved applying for $187,545 in Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Relief Program funds through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
In other business, the commissioners approved paying $50,000 to settle a federal lawsuit alleging Alyssa Nuss, a former employee of the Recorder of Deeds Office, was fired for political reasons after Republican Recorder of Deeds Frank Schiefer took over the office from Democrat Tom Murphy in January. Another similar federal lawsuit is pending.
Following the meeting, the commissioners expressed frustration at paying out another settlement in a lawsuit against an elected official in the county.
“We’re sending a letter to all of our row officers and elected officials telling them we want to hold them accountable,” Kertes said.
The county has paid out more than $500,000 in lawsuit settlements and legal fees in recent years from lawsuits against elected officials.
“We don’t have unlimited resources, and I hope our colleagues take responsibility for that personally,” Chew added. “Maybe it will be an incentive to do that because they are footing the bill.”
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania health officials are looking closely at areas where COVID-19 infection rates and deaths are ticking back up, threatening to turn back progress against the pandemic, the state’s health secretary said Friday.
The rise may be attributable to the gradual reopening that has been taking place in Pennsylvania, as well as more extensive testing, Dr. Rachel Levine said.
“We are doing quote-unquote a deep dive into all of the counties that have had increases,” Levine said, warning that “community spread” is occurring in some parts of Pennsylvania.
Statewide, new case counts grew by 30% and the percentage of positive tests also ticked up in the last seven days, compared with the previous seven-day period, according to state data.
The Health Department announced 600 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania, the state’s highest one-day total reported since June 13. That brings Pennsylvania’s total to more than 84,000 confirmed cases — eighth-highest among states, according to federal data — and, including 22 additional deaths reported Friday, 6,579 deaths since March.
Westmoreland County reported 13 new cases and no additional deaths on Sunday, bringing the countywide case total to 620, with 38 deaths.
Still, hospitalizations have continued to drop.
Also Friday, 11 counties moved to the green phase, the least-restrictive phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s three-step stoplight-colored pandemic reopening plan.
In the meantime, Wolf, a Democrat, has tried to stress in recent days that he has ordered all businesses to require employees and customers to wear masks, as health authorities report fielding complaints about businesses where masks aren’t being worn.
Cases are on the rise in Allegheny County, which reported 61 new confirmed infections Friday, its second-highest reported daily total of new cases.
The county’s case counts and percentage of positive tests both more than tripled in the last seven days, compared with the previous seven-day period, according to state data.
County health authorities said two-thirds of the cases were among those 19 to 49 years old, some of whom reported traveling, attending protests and family gatherings or visiting or working in bars and restaurants. Travel included to places struggling with rising cases, including Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, Houston and Florida.
County health authorities also asked residents to consider postponing plans to travel to a coronavirus hot spot, and to self-quarantine for 14 days and get tested when returning.
In Philadelphia, health officials said Friday they are not meeting the target reductions in new infections to move next week as planned to the green phase.
As a result, they warned that they may have to postpone that step, thus keeping more restrictions in place on businesses that can open, as well as capacity and the size of public gatherings.
The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, said Philadelphia is seeing a slow increase in cases in the city, with a specific spike in people ages 16 to 19, likely because of social gatherings.
The city announced a mandatory mask order for both indoor and outdoor spaces for those in contact with someone they don’t live with, and Farley urged people to quarantine themselves if they come to the city from other states or counties where case counts are rising.
Meanwhile, Wolf’s administration said Friday it will allow Lebanon County, the 67th and final county, to move from the yellow phase to the less-restrictive green phase in one week. The county’s case counts and percentage of positive tests both declined in the last seven days, compared with the previous seven-day period.
Lebanon County had been particularly resistant to Wolf’s shutdown orders. Commissioners there voted 2-1 in mid-May to defy the governor’s orders, even under threat of Wolf blocking coronavirus recovery aid.
Still, the heavily agricultural area in south-central Pennsylvania was held back when other hard-hit areas were allowed this week to move to the green phase.
At UPMC in Pittsburgh, Dr. Donald Yealy, the senior medical director and chair of emergency medicine, said in an interview Friday that, even with an uptick in cases in the area, the number of people hospitalized with the coronavirus or in the intensive care unit is lower than it was in April.
Yealy said he didn’t know why, but that just looking at the number of cases does not tell the entire story.
“It’s an important part of it, nobody’s denying that, but what’s important is also how many people are having severe illnesses, what’s happening to them and are we are identifying who has it,” Yealy said.
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Officials in western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County are halting all on-site consumption of alcohol in bars and restaurants due to what they call an “alarming” spike in COVID-19 cases.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Dr. Debra Bogen, the county health department director, said the recent spike has been largely among young people and involved out-of-state travel, often including night life during travel, and going to local bars and restaurants.
Under the order to go into effect at 5 p.m. Tuesday, bars and restaurants can remain open but won’t be allowed to serve alcohol other than takeout options allowed by the state. In addition, masks will be enforced in restaurants until food arrives, and outdoor seating is being encouraged.
Fitzgerald said officials are keeping an eye on sports and in particular youth sports, since there are some indications there might be a growing problem there.
The county reported an addition 96 cases Sunday, six higher than the previous high of 90 on Saturday, and a total of 393 in the past seven days.
Bogen said she was “very concerned” not only by the rapid rise in cases but because most cases had no known source, indicating they were “community spread.”
“We went from nearly no cases of community spread to a lot very quickly,” Bogen said. In addition, since many people have mild or no symptoms, they are likely unwittingly spreading the virus to others, including perhaps older relatives in high-risk categories, she said.
County health authorities said Friday two-thirds of the cases were among those 19 to 49 years old, some of whom reported traveling, attending protests and family gatherings or visiting or working in bars and restaurants. Travel included to places struggling with rising cases, including Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, Houston and Florida.
County health authorities also asked residents to consider postponing plans to travel to a coronavirus hot spot, and to self-quarantine for 14 days and get tested when returning. Officials said there had been no significant increase in hospitalizations and deaths —“at least not yet,” Bogen said, noting that hospitalizations lag cases by at least a week or more, and current cases are mostly in younger people less prone to serious cases.
State health officials said Friday they were looking closely at areas where COVID-19 infection rates and deaths are ticking back up, threatening to turn back progress against the pandemic. State data indicated that case counts and percentage of positive tests had both more than tripled in the previous seven days over the week before.
Governor Tom Wolf backed the action Sunday, calling the situation in the county “a reminder for the entire state to follow mask-wearing and other mitigation requirements.”
Allegheny County, which includes the city of Pittsburgh, is home to 1.2 million people and is Pennsylvania’s second most-populated county behind Philadelphia.
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump has denied that he was made aware of U.S. intelligence officials’ conclusions that Russia secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for killing American troops in Afghanistan. The Trump administration was set to brief select members of Congress on the matter on Monday.
The intelligence assessments came amid Trump’s push to withdraw the U.S. from Afghanistan, and suggested that Russia was making overtures to militants as the U.S. and the Taliban were holding talks to end the long-running war. The assessment was first reported by The New York Times and then confirmed to The Associated Press by American intelligence officials and two others with knowledge of the matter.
There were conflicting reports about whether Trump was aware of Russia’s actions. The intelligence officials told the AP that the president was briefed on the matter earlier this year; Trump denied that, tweeting on Sunday that neither he nor Vice President Mike Pence had been briefed. The president tweeted Sunday night that he was just told that intelligence officials didn’t report the information to him because they didn’t find it credible.
The intelligence officials and others with knowledge of the matter insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the highly sensitive matter.
The White House National Security Council would not confirm the assessments, but said the U.S. receives thousands of intelligence reports daily that are subject to strict scrutiny.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who golfed with Trump on Sunday, tweeted a day earlier that it is “Imperative Congress get to the bottom of recent media reports that Russian GRU units in Afghanistan have offered to pay the Taliban to kill American soldiers with the goal of pushing America out of the region.”
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the House, called for the White House to share more information with Congress, saying if true, lawmakers need to know “Who did know and when?” and, referring to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, “What has been done in response to protect our forces & hold Putin accountable?”
Democratic presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden said reports that Trump was aware of the Russian bounties would be a “truly shocking revelation” about the commander in chief and his failure to protect U.S. troops in Afghanistan and stand up to Russia.
Russia called the report “nonsense.”
“This unsophisticated plant clearly illustrates the low intellectual abilities of the propagandists of American intelligence, who instead of inventing something more plausible have to make up this nonsense,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said.
A Taliban spokesman said the militants “strongly reject this allegation” and are not “indebted to the beneficence of any intelligence organ or foreign country.”
John Bolton, a former national security adviser who was forced out by Trump last September and has now written a tell-all book about his time at the White House, said Sunday that “it is pretty remarkable the president’s going out of his way to say he hasn’t heard anything about it. One asks, why would he do something like that?”
Bolton told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he thinks the answer “may be precisely because active Russian aggression like that against the American service members is a very, very serious matter and nothing’s been done about it, if it’s true, for these past four or five months, so it may look like he was negligent. But, of course, he can disown everything if nobody ever told him about it.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of the few congressional leaders briefed on sensitive intelligence matters, told ABC’s “This Week” that she had not been informed about the reported bounties and requested a report to Congress on the matter.
“This is as bad as it gets, and yet the president will not confront the Russians on this score, denies being briefed. Whether he is or not, his administration knows and our allies — some of our allies who work with us in Afghanistan had been briefed and accept this report,” she said.
While Russian meddling in Afghanistan is not a new phenomenon for seasoned U.S. intelligence officials and military commandos, officials said Russian operatives became more aggressive in their desire to contract with the Taliban and members of the Haqqani Network, a militant group that is aligned with the Taliban in Afghanistan and that was designated as a foreign terrorist organization in 2012. Russian operatives are said to have met with Taliban leaders in Doha, Qatar and inside Afghanistan; however, it is not known if the meetings were to discuss bounties.
The officials the AP spoke to said the intelligence community has been investigating an April 2019 attack on an American convoy that killed three U.S. Marines after a car rigged with explosives detonated near their armored vehicles as they were traveling back to Bagram Airfield, the largest U.S. military installation in Afghanistan. Three other U.S. service members were wounded in the attack, along with an Afghan contractor. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack on Twitter. The officials the AP spoke to also said they were looking closely at insider attacks — sometimes called “green-on-blue” incidents — from 2019 to determine if they are also linked to Russian bounties.
In early 2020, members of the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, known to the public as SEAL Team Six, raided a Taliban outpost and recovered roughly $500,000. The recovered funds further solidified the suspicions of the American intelligence community that the Russians had offered money to Taliban militants and other linked associations.
One official said the administration discussed several potential responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step.
Trump responded to Biden on Twitter, saying “Russia ate his and Obama’s lunch during their time in office”
But it was the Obama administration, along with international allies, that suspended Russia from the Group of Eight after its unilateral annexation of Crimea from Ukraine — a move that drew widespread condemnation.
Biden criticized Trump for “his embarrassing campaign of deference and debasing himself” before Putin. Trump tweeted that “nobody’s been tougher” on Russia than his administration.
Associated Press writer Lynn Berry contributed to this report.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s health secretary on Friday defended her agency’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak inside the nursing homes and personal care facilities that account for almost 70% of the state’s nearly 6,600 fatalities.
Criticism from Republicans has been focused on the state’s policy that sent recovering patients back to nursing homes after being treated in hospitals. The policy was described as “deadly” in a letter sent Thursday to the state’s attorney general, signed by most of Pennsylvania’s Republican members of Congress.
Levine’s agency has said it was following a March directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Center for Medicare Services that nursing homes “should admit any individuals that they would normally admit to their facility, including individuals from hospitals where a case of COVID-19 was/is present.”
The practice appears to have been routine across states, and no nursing home has stepped forward to say that it was forced to take a COVID-19 patient against its wishes.
Those patients have not been the main source of COVID-19 infections inside the facilities, Levine said — she thinks a more likely culprit is the homes’ own employees.
Levine said the numbers of nursing home and long-term care facility cases is proportional to the population density of the counties where they are located, and cited academic research that backs up her theory about how the coronavirus got inside the homes.
Levine said she was unsure why some facilities have been far more successful than others in limiting the damage once the virus got there.
“We don’t know, specifically,” Levine said, offering as theories that larger homes with more space have been better able to devote the room it takes to isolate infected patients.
In a half-hour interview that focused on the state’s handling of the pandemic’s effects on nursing homes, Levine conceded that full “baseline” testing of all staff and residents in the 694 nursing homes, now expected to be finished by late July, has gone too slowly.
“Some were less efficient, in terms of working on it,” Levine said.
The health secretary said some care homes have not been interested in her agency’s assistance.
“I can’t be specific, but we have worked with facilities that have been less than welcoming to our support,” she said. “We have had to push many times to be able to engage in them and to take ownership of the issues.”
The state attorney general’s office announced last month it had opened a criminal investigation into several nursing homes, related to neglect of patients and residents.
Levine said there have been some problems with nursing home employees calling off the job, but added that most of them were themselves sick with COVID-19 or caring for infected family members.
All nursing home facilities now have sufficient stocks of personal protective equipment, Levine said. Long-term care facilities have so far received more than 306,000 gowns, 336,000 face shields, 1 million, 2.8 million N95 masks and 1.1 million surgical masks.
More visits from nonresidents to people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities will be permitted soon under new guidance that will be announced in the near future.