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State College School Board Adopts New Closing and Reopening Guidelines

by on September 11, 2020 1:30 AM

State College Area School Board on Thursday voted 7-2 to amend the district's health and safety plan to give administrators more flexibility in determining when classes should shift to fully remote learning and when in-person classes can resume.

No decision was made on whether the district will return to in-school classes next week after moving to remote instruction for this week. Administrators and the district's health and safety team on Friday will evaluate local COVID-19 data from the past seven days under the new "multifaceted approach" approved on Thursday. 

In a memo to the board before the meeting, Superintendent Bob O'Donnell and Director of Student Services Jeanne Knouse wrote that the changes are intended to keep students in schools provided conditions are safe.

"We make this request because we continue to believe that being in schools is the best option for many of our students as long as it’s safe for everyone involved," they wrote. "Based on the initial success of our safety protocols and measures, we’re confident that our schools can be safe places for learning and working."

District schools have been fully remote this week after Centre County reached the Department of Health's "substantial" level of community transmission on Sept. 4, as cases have continued to increase since Penn State students returned to the region in August. At the substantial level, the Department of Education recommends, but does not require, schools to move to remote.

O'Donnell said that since then DOH has advised that the state-provided numbers are optional guidelines and decisions remain local. Other Centre County school districts, where there have not been a significant increase in new cases, continued with in-person classes and their superintendents said they were advised by the Department of Education not to change instructional models based on one week of data.

In the original health and safety plan approved by the board in July, specific parameters were set for when all students would move to remote learning. About 73% of district families opted for in-school learning at the start of the fall semester on Aug. 26, while the remainder selected remote and Virtual Academy options.

The original thresholds over a seven-day period included 50-75 new COVID-19 cases within SCASD zip codes, 80-120 new cases in Centre County, a positivity rate of 5-7.5%, and/or Mount Nittany Medical Center reaching critical care capacity.

Amid a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in the State College area last week, the district reached the case count thresholds. But the vast majority of new positives were tied to Penn State student testing and there have been no known cases among SCASD students or employees.

In the memo to the board, district administrators wrote that, "if we don’t update our health and safety plan, we will not be able to return to in-school instruction for the foreseeable future, possibly months.

"The current plan was put into place before we had specific experience as to how COVID-19 would spread in our community," the memo states.

The new approach takes into account multiple data points, mostly without strict parameters, that can be evaluated in context by district administration in consultation with its health and safety team, a group that includes nursing staff, pediatricians and an epidemiologist.

Among those data points is Centre County's positivity rate. DOH guidelines state that school districts within counties having 10% or higher positivity rates should consider moving to remote learning. The county average over seven days ending Thursday was 9.7%.

For incidence rate, DOH recommends considering remote learning when there are 100 new cases per 100,000 residents over the previous seven days. For Centre County, that would be 163 total cases in a week. Last week Centre County had the second highest incidence rate in Pennsylvania.

SCASD adjusted the current seven day total to remove the 16802 zip code because of Penn State's required isolation of COVID-19-positive students living on campus. For the past seven days the adjusted total is 275 total cases, which would also incorporate off-campus students.

Several board members said that 16802 data should not be entirely discounted.

"They are part of the community. We don’t have a strong sense of how well they are being contained," said board member Lori Bedell. "I think there are too many question marks to leave them out of this equation."

Cases among SCASD students, faculty and staff will be monitored. Through Thursday, none have been self-reported to the district or reported by DOH, which O'Donnell said will notify SCASD if a student tests positive.

Community cases reported to the district from testing by Geisinger, Mount Nittany Health and Penn State Health will be considered as a possible indicator of non-Penn State student rates.

Over the past seven days Centre County had a total of 347 cases, along with the 9.7% positivity rate. Those three community health care providers, however, reported 16 cases and a 1% positivity rate during that time. SCASD Finance and Operations Director Randy Brown said that data is "not all-encompassing" and does not include results from testing locations such as MedExpress. He added that he is working to expand the sources of data.

Mount Nittany Medical Center COVID-19 capacity also will be monitored. During the past two weeks, the hospital has reported three total COVID-19 admissions and an average census of less than two.

Penn State employee positive rates also will be evaluated as a possible indicator of if student cases are starting to spread to the broader community. The university was set to begin random COVID-19 screening of faculty and staff this week.

Individual school closures will be based on health department and education department guidelines.

The district also will enact additional precautions when in-school learning is occurring, including random health screenings and temperature checks and working with local health care providers for random testing of employees. SCASD will continue to implement our health and safety plan with fidelity continue to implement our health and safety plan with fidelity," O'Donnell and Knouse wrote. Through Aug. 31, the district had spent about $2.1 million on pandemic-related expenses, though that number will continue to increase. Federal and state funding provided $1.3 million.

"We have many difficult decisions ahead, some that we know and some that we don’t know," O'Donnell said during the meeting. "The safety team is 100 percent committed to working with us and wrestling through these challenges to try to make the best decisions for the health and safety of our staff and students and determining if it is safe to return to our schools and implement our plan for any in-school opportunities we might have."

Board member Laurel Zydney said she was in favor of adapting to changing conditions but voted against the amendment because she felt broad parameters still needed to be in place. Gretchen Brandt also voted no.

"We should have some very broad parameters based on the input of our safety team. In those circumstances it is our job as representatives to come and listen to the reasons the administration is recommending we go ahead despite those boundaries," Zydney said. "We are not broadening parameters [with the changes]. We are removing parameters entirely."

Scott Fozard said he appreciated the approach of considering all relevant data points, but no single one being the driver in deciding to open or close. He added that to date there has been no evidence of general spread from cases among the Penn State student population to the rest of the community.

He also said that any district family that feels more comfortable with remote learning has that option.

Dan Duffy said the changes to the plan are a "course correction" after getting a better sense of local COVID-19 data.

"I think in terms of the risk protection, the role of mitigation and the opportunity for kids to be in development-appropriate experiences... that being in school is the best option for our kids," he said. "For some kids being in school and having these mitigation practices in place may be safer than being in other settings where their in group situations...  where there’s less attention to mitigation."

Geoff Rushton is managing editor for Contact him at [email protected] or find him on Twitter at @geoffrushton.
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