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Going to school

Districts go back to in-person learning amid debate about COVID-19 safety

LOYSBURG — The auditorium of Northern Bedford County High School was nearly empty for its Tuesday school board meeting, yet more than 100 people listened in virtually.

After an hour of discussion by parents, teachers and a student, the NBC School Board approved a return to full-time, in-person learning on Tuesday by a 6-3 vote.

The debate embodied the perspectives throughout this area since late August: Though each person agreed they wanted students back in the classrooms, they disagreed on one question: “When?”

Brett Keith, a choir instructor at the district’s middle school, was the first to speak at the meeting. He said the decision “might be a little too soon,” citing two recently confirmed COVID-19 cases at the district.

Keith said he was concerned about the health risk the decision would cause for children and their families, as a person with Type 1 diabetes and with a child who is immunocompromised. He asked the board to “pause” and consider all factors further, which would also give more time for families to adjust to a new schedule.

After public comment, board member David Potchak, who voted against the measure, said the most important issue is the health and well-being of the students.

“I’d hate to see children deal with something we know so little about,” he said, referring to the long-term effects of the virus.

Board member Ralph Scott, who voted in favor of the measure, admitted “there is no good option” and, as an older person, sympathized with those in higher risk groups.

But to the question of “why now,” Scott said his concern is on school achievement. He said last year at this time, 13% of students were failing at least one course, whereas now 41% of students in grades 9 through 12 are.

“When I look at this as a former educator, I ask myself, ‘Is this hybrid system working?'” he said.

Clay McIlnay, an 11th-grader in the district, said the hybrid model has slowed learning and had a negative impact on the mental health of his peers.

For the school’s hybrid model, students virtually attend classes. McIlnay said students on virtual learning frequently can’t see what’s on the board and deal with slow Wi-Fi and other technical problems.

“Dealing with that for nine class periods a day is very stressful,” he said.

Forty miles north of Loysburg on the same night, the Tyrone Area School Board voted 8-1 to allow middle and high school students to return to full-time, in-person classes on Monday. Pre-K students might return on Nov. 2.

Some favoring the decision to return have cited low incidence rates of COVID-19 at area schools offering full-time, in-person classes.

The Bellwood-Antis School District has offered full-time, in-person learning since Aug. 31. Superintendent Thomas McInroy said the school was “hit with a couple of scares” related to COVID-19 cases, but hasn’t had anything “crippling.”

He said no district students have tested positive that he’s aware of, however, a family member of a student was recently quarantined.

Betsy Baker, superintendent of the Spring Cove School District, said only individual students — not classrooms, nor entire buildings — have had to quarantine since the beginning of its school year on Aug. 25.

“Inside the school setting, our students and staff are staying home when ill, complying with the mask order, implementing mitigation efforts, etc.,” Baker said.

Nicole Verdiglione of Everett spoke against the NBC board’s decision to shift to full-time, in-person learning now, based on rising virus case counts locally. Verdiglione said the board should wait until the case count in Bedford County is down from 35 to 10 of 100,000 people.

Most recent state department of health numbers show that Blair County has an incidence rate of 84 case per 100,000 people.

Both Superintendents Baker and McInroy understand the situation could change within their respective schools, though Baker said she hasn’t seen the virus spreading within the Spring Cove School District like it has externally in some communities.

Both Tyrone and NBC school districts will allow parents to choose virtual learning.

McInroy said at the beginning of the year, about 10% of parents chose the virtual learning option at Bellwood-Antis schools. That number has since shrunk to about 8%.

He said virtual learning does slow the pace of teaching and can be hard on teachers, but he has seen little need for remediation in the district for those who have switched from virtual to in-person. He attributed this, in part, to the district having already used iPads for four years and “front-loading” eight service days at the beginning of the year for teachers to adjust to technological changes.

Baker said enrollment for Spring Cove’s cyber academy has increased from about 1% to 7% from last year. The district contracts teachers through Learning Lamp and uses Odysseyware programming for its cyber option.

Due to limited staff, the NBC Board voted to replace its current in-house virtual education program with an external one through Accelerate Education. Funding from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency COVID-19 grant will cover the costs, according to the district.

On Sept. 23, the Hollidaysburg Area School Board voted to transition toward allowing full-time, in-person instruction in November. The hybrid model and HASD Cyber Academy learning platforms will continue to be available. The Altoona Area School Board passed a similar measure earlier this month.

Mirror Staff Writer Dom

Cuzzolina is at 814-946-7428.

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