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Schools report limited resources

Pandemic changes teaching techniques, hits districts’ budgets

Editor’s note: This is the second 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 county superintendents to take on public health-related tasks in place of their educational duties.

When asked if the district could hire someone to take on these public health duties, Charles Prijatelj, superintendent of the Altoona Area School District, said there’s no money for it.

“We lost $700,000 to $1 million in business privilege and mercantile taxes,” he said. “People are having problems paying taxes because of not working.”

Districts have had to reassign staff to not only take on immediate needs of public health, but in dealing with logistics of new instructional models. Prijatelj said this means whatever staff was doing before either isn’t getting done or they are “now working 80 hours” to keep up.

He said Haley Fleegle, director of federal programs, gifted and instructional coaching, is an example of an employee who has taken on new responsibilities due to COVID-19. In addition to working to meet federal grant deadlines (among other tasks), she is now coordinating teams and technology for the virtual learning of almost 600 elementary school students.

Superintendent Robert Gildea of the Hollidaysburg Area School District said districts had resource challenges even before the pandemic. He said CARES Act money provided to the school was “appreciated,” but “didn’t come close to covering the increased costs due to COVID,” projecting HASD to have had a $1.4 million increase in cyber costs with federal funding covering only $700,000.

Prijatelj called the situation “insane.”

“We’re getting by through sheer force of will right now,” he said. “You do it because you have to get it done and you have to do what’s right for the kids.”

Long-term impact

Gildea said the pandemic has completely changed instructional learning. He said in the past 10 years, classrooms have shifted away from the “industrial model” of education that separates students into rows with a teacher lecturing in the front.

“When you walk into a classroom, you should see students actively engaged in the lesson and working together,” he said. “With COVID, we’re encouraging exactly the opposite.”

Virtual and hybrid models are a reversion to that industrial model which doesn’t encourage critical thinking, creativity, communication or collaboration, he said.

“There is a real possibility there will be an intellectual gap where students are not as well educated as their predecessors were,” Superintendent Thomas McInroy of the Bellwood-Antis School District said of the impact COVID-19 changes may cause.

McInroy said while there’s usually an educational regression over the summer, this year it was “far greater within the district” than he’d seen. He said they will look to use remediation but they will need people willing to work with students in that capacity and students willing to accept that remediation.

Prijatelj said a goal for AASD is to make sure whatever has been put in place during COVID-19 — whether that’s certain training, virtual-learning, etc. — is usable after the pandemic ends.

Message to the community

Gildea said it’s indisputable that when there’s COVID-19 in the community, it’ll be brought into the schools. He said proactive parents help decrease the virus’s impact on the education system locally.

McInroy said those calling the virus a hoax obviously don’t have the responsibility of keeping children safe and healthy. He said it is “scientific fact” that wearing a mask protects everyone.

“We cannot make this a political football,” McInroy said. “At the end of the day, all we have is our health.”

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

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