Derry Area School District is continuing with a full remote instructional model through next week as COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases have surged in Westmoreland County in October.
The district, however, plans to further monitor county and school coronavirus data before determining specifics regarding how long remote learning may last. Greater Latrobe and Ligonier Valley school districts recently announced plans to halt in-person classes for two weeks starting Nov. 2, while Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center (EWCTC) students will learn remotely through Nov. 13.
Derry Area superintendent Eric Curry said at Thursday’s school board work session that the district plans to “reassess” the situation at next week’s regular board meeting.
School director Sean Kemmerer requested that the board consider setting a specific date on how long remote learning may last, but school board president David Krinock wanted to avoid putting “a definitive date on anything yet. We want to keep looking at the numbers.”
School board members stressed Thursday they want to see students and teachers back in district buildings as soon as Westmoreland County coronavirus positivity and incidence rates allow.
“We can’t emphasize enough that we want to get our kids back to school as soon as possible,” Curry said.
Added Krinock: “This weighs on us heavily. We need to be in school face-to-face and we want that as badly as parents do, because we understand what parents are up against.”
According to guidelines from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, school districts have the ability to determine which educational model to implement based on the level of community transmission of COVID-19. The recommendations factor in the incidence rate — the number of positive cases per 100,000 people over a seven-day span — and the positivity rate among those tested.
Westmoreland County had remained in the “moderate” level of community transmission since before the start of the 2020-21 school year, but for the past two weeks has fallen into the “substantial” category after weeks of surging coronavirus case totals. In order to fall into the “low” level of community transmission, the incidence rate over a seven-day stretch must be fewer than 10 residents per 100,000 and the positivity rate must be less than 5%.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Westmoreland County’s incidence rate for the most recent seven-day period — Oct. 16-22 — was 124.1 per 100,000. In the previous seven-day period, the incidence rate in the county was 142.9, according to the state health department’s COVID-19 Early Warning Monitoring System Dashboard.
During a presentation Thursday, Curry reported that Derry Area’s incidence rate was 113.2 and that the district had a 16.9% positivity rate for a seven-day period ending Oct. 29. Compared to data from the week of Oct. 22, the latest figures represent a 30-plus drop in the district’s incidence rate and a nearly 1% increase in the positivity rate.
Curry said district incidence and positivity rates encompass the six ZIP codes within the school district — Bradenville, Derry, New Derry and New Alexandria, along with Blairsville and Latrobe. When reviewing case numbers at the school board’s Oct. 1 meeting, he pointed out that district figures include cases within the entire Latrobe and Blairsville ZIP codes, which include only a small number of Derry Area students.
Curry said the state departments of Health and Education, along with the Bureau of Epidemiology, recommended that area schools conduct remote-only learning until Westmoreland County marks two straight weeks of “moderate” community transmission — an incidence rate of between 10 and 100 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 5% to 10%. Additionally, he said a local physician panel and county public safety and emergency management officials recommended following the state’s guidance. Under this plan, schools would re-evaluate their status every week based on the previous two weeks of data.
Derry Area initially shuttered its school buildings Oct. 13, after learning five staff members tested positive for the virus, and planned to reopen for in-person instruction Oct. 19 before learning of additional COVID-19 cases last week and extending the remote learning model through at least the end of this week.
Derry Area’s first positive COVID-19 cases came less than two weeks after the school board had approved the return of full-time, in-person learning for middle- and high-school students.
Curry on Thursday announced plans to place a running COVID-19 dashboard on the district website at https://www.dasd.us/. Greater Latrobe also uses an online dashboard to track virus cases.
“This is a way for our community to understand how this is impacting the school,” Curry said of the dashboard.
According to Derry Area’s COVID-19 dashboard, the district had three active positive cases as of Thursday afternoon, all of which were school personnel. The latest district figures also show that 16 people within the district, eight personnel and eight students, have recovered from the virus.
Additionally, the figures show that 21 people within the district (16 students, five personnel) are currently in quarantine/isolation.
In public comments submitted to the board — Thursday’s work session was available via a YouTube livestream and more than 200 people viewed the meeting — numerous parents expressed issues tied to remote learning, especially for elementary school students.
School board member Steve Kozar also had concerns regarding students’ failure rates without daily face-to-face instruction. During the first month of classes this school year, district data showed a total of 51 ninth-grade students were failing at least one course compared to just eight in the first quarter of the 2019-20 school year. District data so far in 2020-21 also show increased failure rates in 10th grade (21 more), 11th grade (30 more) and 12th grade (22 more) compared to last year.
School director Nathan Doherty suggested that the district, if possible, explore giving students who are learning remotely the chance to participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, art and music.
“We should really be working hard on keeping those activities going,” he said.
Kemmerer agreed, noting that after-school events are generally “contained” activities that would allow for easier coronavirus contact tracing, if needed.
“We have to figure out a way to get the kids back to some sort of normal for their mental health and physical well being,” Kemmerer said. “How to do it safely is the issue, but there’s a way to thread the needle here and try to get the elementary kids back on at least a hybrid basis to have some of that face-to-face interaction.”
Krinock noted that while many county schools have migrated to full remote learning, the choice ultimately rests with individual school districts.
“Mr. Curry said it’s a recommendation, and it is (one), but it doesn’t mean we have to follow it. But taking a recommendation of that size with the gravity behind it, it’s a lot of painstaking thought from this board and administration,” Krinock said. “We do know in our hearts what is best for our kids, and we know what’s best for parents. I personally want to get the young kids back as soon as possible, and we’ll work on the high school and middle school students in order.”
“We are well aware of the struggles of our students, our families and our community as a whole related to COVID-19, and its impact on this school district,” Curry added. “On the human side of it, my heart breaks for them. I understand fully what they’re going through.”
In other business, the school board:
- Accepted the resignation of Kristen Boskamp as a Grandview Elementary School attendance aide, effective Oct. 23;
- Approved to employ Amanda McCullough as a full-time attendance aide at Grandview Elementary, at a rate of $15.72 per hour;
- Approved to employ Maurice Borbonus as a full-time library aide at Grandview Elementary at a rate of $15.72 per hour;
- Approved a settlement and agreement release for student issue No. 232;
- Approved a hearing waiver memorandum in student discipline No. 233, dated Oct. 8;
- The board held an executive session Thursday regarding student and legal matters.