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Continued tensions bubble over for AASD board

Members’ debate over educational model turns heated

The Altoona Area School Board meeting Tuesday brought months of debate over educational models to a peak, drawing varying responses from within the district.

Kirk Dodson, an Altoona Area High School teacher, applauded the administration and the five board members who voted for a virtual learning model. He said teachers want to be in the classroom with students, but it’s not safe now.

“I thought it was a mistake to come back in the first place,” he said. “Fortunately, wiser people saw that this was not a good idea.”

Dodson said considering his own risk factors as a cancer survivor and someone over 60, he will choose to teach from home as offered.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Assistant Superintendent Brad Hatch said teachers would have the flexibility to work from home or the classroom.

Board member Ed Kreuz criticized this idea, calling it a “double standard.”

“They should have to find day care for their children, too, they should have to come into the building and work, that’s what we’re paying them to do,” Kreuz said.

In an interview Wednesday, AASD Superintendent Charles Prijatelj said the reason for offering this flexibility for teachers is to ensure instruction continues in an environment with already limited substitutes.

“Companies are dealing with this all over the place,” Prijatelj said. “Our number one concern is the delivery of instruction to children.”

Hatch explained to the board at Tuesday’s meeting that the key problem in continuing any model with in-person elements is in the number of staff available to teach and run the school due to quarantining and isolation. He said the district was down 23 teachers with only five substitutes to cover them. He said special education teachers have had to help cover those who are out.

District Community Relations Director Paula Foreman echoed that in an interview Wednesday. She said quarantines create challenges for the district because staff numbers begin to run low.

Foreman, however, disagreed with one public commenter from Tuesday’s meeting, who identified himself as Dutch Brennan, the former school board president. Brennan said the morale of teachers was low due to the board’s leadership.

“I don’t believe that’s the case,” Foreman said. “Everyone has different stresses; we’re all under different stresses because of COVID-19.”

Though Altoona Area School Board discussions are often more contentious than those of other local districts, Tuesday night’s meeting had especially tense moments.

At one point, a disagreement by the most vocal members of the board — Rick Hoover and President Sharon Bream — descended into personal attacks. The spark came after Hoover criticized Bream for not wearing a mask during the meeting — something he has called attention to at each prior meeting.

The two have disagreed for months on which educational model to use, with Hoover advocating for virtual learning and Bream supporting parental choice.

Board member Kelly Irwin Adams has sided with Bream on the debate over which model to use, voting for students to do in-person learning. Adams has regularly voiced her concerns regarding child care for parents.

Prijatelj said he is well aware of the challenges created by a virtual instructional model and that the district will provide as much support as possible to the community.

Dodson said he is sympathetic to parents’ situation when it comes to child care, but that many responsibilities are already “heaped on” the district.

“While we are educators, we are not in the baby-sitting business — that’s not our role,” Dodson said.

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

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