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Coronavirus issues consume school administrators’ time

Editor’s note: This is the first of two stories about school superintendents and administrators being pulled from their regular duties because of the health risks from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rise in coronavirus cases has forced school superintendents to take on public health-related tasks in place of their educational duties.

A superintendent normally acts as an instructional leader — guiding curriculum, overseeing a budget and maintaining strong relationships with staff, students and parents.

Superintendent Charles Prijatelj of the Altoona Area School District said now 75% of his day is spent dealing with public health and COVID-19 issues.

“All I’ve been dealing with for the last month and a half is COVID-19,” he said.

Due to increased caseloads on state Department of Health officials in recent weeks, Blair County superintendents say they don’t have the same level of support and communication as earlier in the school year.

“We have good people at the Department of Health who are overwhelmed,” said Superintendent Thomas McInroy of the Bellwood-Antis School District.

Superintendent Darren McLaurin of the Claysburg-Kimmel School District said initially administrators were supposed to be “case investigators,” which meant identifying and investigating those with confirmed or probable COVID-19 diagnosis.

Because of decreased support, administrators have had to do contact tracing as well — identifying, monitoring and supporting close contacts of those exposed or possibly infected.

Superintendent Robert Gildea of the Hollidaysburg Area School District said the DOH initially indicated response times for health-related recommendations would be less than 24 hours. He said the wait has increased as time has passed — in some cases taking up to five days. McLaurin said some students haven’t gotten calls until after their quarantine.

“This is forcing superintendents and principals to make decisions we’re not qualified to make,” Gildea said.

Superintendent Leslie Estep of the Tyrone Area School Board further explained this problem.

“School administrators have been placed in positions of having to make decisions about case investigations, quarantines and closures in the gap time between being notified of a case and engaging in direct communication with the public health experts,” she said in an email.

Last week, HASD shifted its junior high and high schools to full-virtual learning. AASD has recently quarantined elementary school classes, the high school football team and extended a quarantine for the entire Juniata Elementary School. Claysburg-Kimmel shifted grades 7-12 to virtual learning beginning today.

When asked about this situation, a DoH spokesperson responded that they are “very concerned” with the increase in cases and are working with local partners to assist in protecting the communities they serve.

The DOH reported 29% of all cases had a case investigation started within 24 hours of receiving a positive COVID-19 report during the last week of October.

Virus-related responsibilities

Prijatelj said he sits down in the morning and has anywhere from five to 10 people to contact and tell how long to quarantine. As the COVID-19 clearance officer, he receives notifications for positive or potential cases in the district and decides who to quarantine. He also prepares spreadsheets for the DoH on those who tested positive.

McLaurin said to do contact tracing, Claysburg-Kimmel administrators inspect seating charts, bus rosters, cafeteria seating charts, extracurricular lists and more, starting from two days before the date of the positive test or when symptoms first began. Principals are tasked with asking teachers certain questions about mask breaks, spacing, close contacts, etc.

The district then shares this information with the DoH.

“There’s a pretty intense interview process for COVID from the Department of Health,” he said. “If you don’t have that information ready, you’re looking at multiple phone calls.”

McLaurin said 99% of his meetings are now COVID-19 related. He said communication to parents and the public on these issues also can be time-consuming, because wording is important to avoid violating HIPAA.

Despite the frustrations and consumed time, the superintendents say these tasks are critical.

“The administration is responsible for the safety of our kids,” McInroy said. “Every single one of us carries that responsibility and we don’t take it lightly.”

Mirror Staff Reporter Dom Cuzzolina is at 9814-46-7428.

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