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AASD shifting to virtual learning

The Altoona Area School Board voted Tuesday to shift the district to a full-virtual learning model.

According to the district’s virtual learning plan, junior and senior high school students will follow a standard school-day schedule, attending live classes using their devices. Elementary students will attend virtual full- and small-group sessions throughout the day.

The district plan says itinerant lessons will be posted throughout the week and support staff (Special Education, Title I, Gifted, ESL) will coordinate to provide live sessions throughout the day for students in need of services.

The plan is to be in place from Dec. 1 until February 2021, or when Blair County has experienced two consecutive weeks at a disease transmission rate below the substantial level.

After some heated discussion, the board voted 5-4 in favor of the shift. Board Vice President Frank Meloy and members Mike Baker, David Francis, Rick Hoover and Ron Johnston voted in favor. Board President Sharon Bream and members Kelly Irwin Adams, Eric Haugh and Ed Kreuz voted against.

Seventeen parents/guardians and community members called prior to the vote to share their opinions and concerns.

A caller identifying herself as Erin Shumac, a mother of four, said her children have had an “excellent” experience with virtual learning.

“I know it wasn’t ideal back in March, but that was crisis mode,” she said. “It’s much better now, it’s much more organized now.”

However, others reported having negative experiences with virtual learning.

A caller identifying herself as Sandra Rhodes, said her child in first grade began using the virtual model when isolating after testing positive for COVID-19. She said one virtual class had 70 students on it, making it impossible for her son to ask the teacher questions.

She said her son’s special education was only one hour, which she said is “nowhere near” what his individualized education program required.

A caller identifying himself as Kyle Harpster said he was concerned about child care for his two elementary school-aged daughters if the district decided to go virtual. He said he and his wife both work full-time jobs and don’t have family available to help.

“Sending our kids to someone’s house this day or someone’s house that day isn’t any safer,” he said. “We definitely need them to go to school full time.”

Another caller, identifying himself as Dutch Brennan, questioned the board’s leadership through the crisis and said due to this, the AASD staff “morale is in the toilet.” He said staff deserved more consideration in decisions made.

“You don’t just have a responsibility to your students, you have a responsibility to (your staff),” he said.

Mirror Staff Writer Dom Cuzzolina is at 814-946-7428.

A closer look

Gov. Tom Wolf required Monday that schools in counties with a “substantial transmission” level for at least two consecutive weeks must either transition to fully-remote learning or sign an attestation that they will abide by all state orders. If the attestation is not followed, schools will have virtual learning imposed with extracurricular activities restricted.

As of Nov. 20, the Altoona Area High School has 14 active cases. The junior high has nine, and the elementary schools range between having two and eight active cases.

The state Department of Health recommends large schools in a county at the substantial level — AASD junior and senior high schools — consider altering their schedule “significantly” to decrease the number of students on site. It says buildings with six to 10 active cases should close for three to seven days, while those with more than 11 active cases should close for 14 days.

It recommends small schools in a county at the substantial level — all of the district elementary schools — consider the same measures but that buildings with two to four active cases close for three to seven days, while those with more than five active cases close for 14 days.

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