The Greater Latrobe School District is staying status quo.
Board members met Wednesday night for a special emergency meeting and voted by an 8-1 margin to remain in the blended instructional model despite rising coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, on Monday, announced all public schools in counties that are placed within the “substantial” category of community coronavirus transmission for at least two consecutive weeks – 59 of the state’s 67 counties – fall under the new directive. Westmoreland County school districts, like the majority across the state, have to decide by 5 p.m. Monday whether to commit to a full-remote instructional model in response to the local increase in COVID-19 cases or sign off on their compliance with state pandemic safety protocols.
Greater Latrobe opted to stay in its blended instructional model, previously approved at the Nov. 10 school board meeting. The blended model gives students the option to attend school in a brick and mortar setting, or remain at home in a full online remote model.
“This new order is basically an admission that as long as we follow their guidance, that we can continue to stay open during the substantial category,” Greater Latrobe solicitor Ned Nakles said. “And that really hadn’t been established from a legal perspective. I gave an opinion on it, that it’s a local decision … it’s a community decision, and I felt like I could support it, but now it’s in the order.
“At least there’s some recognition that we can keep working in substantial under certain conditions.”
Under the directive, the district had to sign an attestation form.
“It means you attest to something,” Nakles said. “It’s like signing a verification, or an affidavit, and it says you have a choice. You can stay in school and follow the guidelines that the state put out, or you can attest that you’re going to transition to fully remote learning. We signed the attestation and everything will stay the same.”
The attestation form required signatures from Greater Latrobe superintendent Dr. Georgia Teppert and school board president Dr. Michael Zorch. But Nakles wanted the full board to act on the measure to keep the district open in the midst of the state’s “substantial” category.
“I didn’t feel it was right for the superintendent and the board president to sign something and be out there on a limb all by themselves,” Nakles said.
“I think this should be a whole, complete board authorization. This is a decision the entire board has made. There should be some recognition that the whole board is going to support them and has their back on this.”
About 30 members of the public attended the special meeting. The board deliberated its decision in executive session for more than 90 minutes as the meeting started an hour later than the originally scheduled time.
Heidi Kozar cast the lone dissenting vote on Wednesday. She voted for a motion to send students to school five days a week earlier this month and against a similar motion in September.
Kozar touched on mask wearing, additional sanitization measures and social distancing in classrooms, particularly at the junior high on Wednesday.
“There are classrooms at the junior high that are not six feet, nor did I ever say they were six feet,” Teppert said. “We are socially distanced to the fullest extent possible of six feet.
“The World Health Organization states that three-to-six feet is their recommendation for socially distanced, and I can assure you that we are over three feet, with most of our areas being closer to four-and-a-half, or five, if not six feet. At the elementary buildings we are six feet and at the senior high, with 280 students online, currently, we are socially distanced.”
Teppert added that at the junior high, when students are not six feet apart, there are plexiglass dividers on desks.
“Even though we have those, if there’s a positive case, and we’re not six feet socially distanced, it would require quarantining individuals who are within that six feet area,” Teppert said. “At the junior high, you will see higher quarantine numbers because of some of the classrooms.”
Kozar added that she’s concerned about students who do not stay socially distant during the high school’s “Lunch and Learn” time period.
“I know our team is trying their hardest to monitor, but it’s not always possible,” Kozar said. “When given an opportunity like “Lunch and Learn,” they will cluster and there can’t always be an adult to tell them to back up. And they’re usually mask-less because they’re eating.
“I don’t know what the answers are. I just know that this is happening and it makes me very nervous.”
Teppert said that mask mandates are followed, adding that there are approved six-foot, socially-distant mask breaks, but she will meet again with high school administrators to discuss procedures.
“We have reiterated proper use of masks being over the nose and over the mouth,” Teppert said. “When we see an individual, if they don’t have the mask over their nose, they are asked to please pull your mask up, whether they’re adults or students.”
Kozar said that she talked to a teacher who told her that “almost every” student in her elementary class traveled away for the Thanksgiving holiday, which is a contrast to public health directives that advised against traditional gatherings.
“We are now at a rate higher than we were in the spring when we shut down,” Kozar said. “And we’re still considering being open after are students are traveling for the holidays.
“We should be doing everything we can to keep the healthcare facilities from being overwhelmed. And now, we’re going to go into the holiday weekend where people are not taking the governor’s advice, they’re going to be more likely to contract this disease and they’re going to bring it back on Tuesday. I just think it’s a really bad decision.”
Teppert said the board discussed a remote option one week after Thanksgiving, similar to several other county schools.
“Truthfully, our fear is that if we shut down for a week or two weeks, when the kids come back, and cases hit again, then we’re shutting down again,” Teppert said. “It would be best to have the kids in school after Thanksgiving, monitor it very closely. We would hate to shut it down for two weeks, come back, and then possibly have to shut down again.”
Zorch, a retired emergency room physician, doesn’t believe critical care in the community is currently being overwhelmed, but it’s a factor the district considers, in addition to community transmission, along with a myriad of other aspects.
Zorch added that the district has previously discussed its mitigation efforts and administrators and school officials are doing the best they can given the circumstances. He also referred to data that cites fewer cases of serious illness among students and lower transmission rates within the school setting if mitigation efforts are being followed.
“I understand this is a very serious disease,” Zorch said. “I sure as hell don’t want to get it and I don’t want to die. But we have a state that’s letting a casino open for God’s sake and telling us that we have to close our schools. It drives me crazy and I don’t understand that thinking.
“I don’t think we’re putting our kids at excessive risk. If we have a bunch of kids and staff members getting sick, then we’ll have to shut it down, but we haven’t had that yet.”
Teppert said the board still plans to continually evaluate, update and take into account “a large series” of factors, as to whether or not to change the model of education regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases. That could be transitioning back to a hybrid model of remote and in-person learning, or even full virtual, online classes again. But on Wednesday, the board agreed to remain in the blended instructional model, giving students the option to stay in school for five days a week or to learn online.
In October, there were 32 active cases of COVID-19 throughout the district, but as of Thursday, there were only eight active cases and 74 total since the beginning of the school year.
“We’re going to monitor every single case,” Teppert said.
Nakles said that if Greater Latrobe receives an order to close from the state, then the district must close.
“If we actually get an order that isn’t guidance, then we can’t disregard a direct order,” Nakles said. “In a roundabout way, the state is acknowledging that we can stay open while we’re in substantial, as long as we’re following the guidelines, which we’re following anyway.
“This is always a fluid situation and things can change. “Every time we think we have this tiger by the tail, we get some new guidance.”